Mediation Board Orders Northwest to Keep Negotiating With Mechanics

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Northwest Airlines Corp. must keep negotiating with mechanics, mediators said on Thursday, handing the union a victory in its efforts to resist pay cuts.

Northwest had wanted the mediator to declare the talks at an impasse. That would have prompted a 30-day countdown toward a strike or a lockout - or a deal. Both sides had been making strike preparations, but the mediator's decision heads off the possibility of a strike, at least in the near term.

The rejection came just one day after mechanics urged the National Mediation Board to let the talks continue.

''I'm surprised they ruled this soon. It gives us more time to negotiate,'' said Jeff Mathews, spokesman and contract coordinator for the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association.

In a statement, Northwest said it would continue to work with the mediation board to reach a deal with the mechanics union. But the airline reiterated that it has the highest labor costs in the industry and that it was ''imperative'' that a ''concessionary labor agreement'' with AMFA be reached as soon as possible.

The mediation board wrote on Thursday that Northwest's May 24 request to declare an impasse ''is not in order at this time,'' but it also said mediators ''will closely monitor the progress of this case.''

Northwest is seeking major wage cuts and layoffs of at least 2,000 more mechanics in talks that began in October. A mediator got involved in February. But mechanics said Northwest didn't make its wage proposals until May, and AMFA said it hasn't had a chance to respond.

Like other older airlines, Northwest has been losing money since 2001. It is trying to cut $1.1 billion in annual labor costs. Cuts for pilots and managers will save $300 million, and Northwest is proposing concessions worth $176 million for mechanics.

But mechanics have resisted, saying they've absorbed thousands of layoffs already. Northwest CEO Doug Steenland told analysts earlier this week that a strike deadline would provide the kind of pressure needed to reach a deal.

Northwest officials have said they plan to keep flying if there's a strike. Contractors have run ads for FAA-certified mechanics, apparently to work at Northwest, and the airline has run ads for flight attendants saying they would be hired if there's a strike. The airline said Thursday it has not added replacement technicians to its payroll.

Northwest shares fell 3 cents to close at $6.24 Thursday on the Nasdaq Stock Market.