Northwest's Duluth, Minn. Mechanics Fear Sale

Mechanics at Northwest Airline's Duluth maintenance base are raising concerns that the facility in which they work could wind up in the hands of a third party.

In a statement issued Monday morning, Northwest mechanics suggested Airbus, the French company that manufactures the airplanes they service, may be working to cut a deal with Northwest. If the base were sold to Airbus, Chris Anderson fears many of his fellow union members could be left out in the cold. Anderson is president of Airline Mechanics Fraternal Association Local 35, the unit that represents Northwest's mechanics.

Anderson described a scenario whereby Northwest would contract with Airbus to service jets after selling it the maintenance base. Northwest then could eliminate another 272 workers from its payroll in Duluth.

Even if some Northwest mechanics could continue to work at the base under new management, Anderson said they probably would be faced with reduced pay and benefits.

"Northwest has made it clear they want out of the maintenance business," Anderson said.

Last week, the airline announced plans to curtail many of its maintenance operations in the Twin Cities and lay off 600 more mechanics by July 1. When done, Northwest will have reduced its maintenance payroll by 4,400 people -- or 45 percent systemwide -- since 2000.

Kurt Ebenhoch, a spokesman for the airline, flatly denied the ownership of the Duluth airbase is in any question.

"Northwest has no plans to sell the Duluth maintenance base," he said, offering nothing more in the form of a prepared statement.

MaryAnne Greczyn, a communications manager for Airbus, pointed out that Airbus has never been in the business of operating maintenance bases, adding she was unaware of any plans to enter that arena.

However, EADS, Airbus' majority shareholder with an 80 percent interest in the company, does operate a maintenance facility in Fort Charles, La., serving USAir.

Anderson noted the Fort Charles facility maintains A319s and A320s -- the same aircraft serviced by Northwest in Duluth. The work once was performed in house by USAir's own mechanics.

A recent meeting involving U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar and representatives of Northwest Airlines heightened the union's concerns that some sort of a deal involving the Duluth base was in the works.

Anderson explained that a member of the Airline Mechanics Fraternal Association in a St. Paul bar overheard a conversation involving a Northwest executive who described detailed plans to meet with Oberstar for the purpose of discussing a possible restructuring of maintenance operations in Duluth. AMFA members staked out the Airport Hilton in Bloomington to see if the meeting would occur, and Anderson said they saw Oberstar and Northwest officials arrive shortly before the appointed time.

When AMFA members followed up with calls to Oberstar's office asking about the meeting, Anderson said the union received conflicting messages.

"When Bill Richard (Oberstar's chief of staff) learned we knew about this meeting, he warned us in two telephone conversations that we 'would spoil the whole deal' if we went to the press," Anderson said. "Then, in the third phone call, he said the deal was just a rumor."

Oberstar was unavailable for comment Monday, and his staff declined comment on the situation, saying the congressman would be available to respond today.

Recent visits by Airbus officials to Northwest's Duluth maintenance base have fueled mechanics' concerns that a shakeup is in the works. Anderson said AMFA representatives' calls to Airbus have not been returned, "which is highly unusual."

Under its contract with its mechanics, Northwest would seem to have little opportunity to outsource Duluth maintenance work. Duluth mechanics maintain a fleet of about 150 Airbus jets.

Northwest is bumping up against the 38 percent cap on its outsourcing of aircraft maintenance. That cap, which the airline has signaled it wishes to raise, is part of its contract with its mechanics.

The airline, which has lost about $2.5 billion on its operations in the past four years, has been pushing its mechanics and other employees for $1.1 billion in annual wage and other givebacks.

Meanwhile, Northwest, like other major carriers, has been tapping outside companies to handle more and more of its plane maintenance.

The relationship between Northwest and its mechanics has grown increasingly bitter.

State senators representing Duluth in St. Paul said they are concerned and would be angered if the number of workers at Northwest's Duluth maintenance base were decreased.

Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he has a Wednesday dinner meeting scheduled with Northwest officials but was unsure what the precise topic would be. Bakk's Senate district includes the maintenance base.

"What's important is making sure we have a work force that's employed there," Bakk said. He said he was encouraged Northwest was at least talking to state lawmakers. He also expressed worry that the airline could be on the verge of bankruptcy, which could be a disaster for workers not only at the maintenance base but at all Northwest facilities statewide, including a reservation center on the Iron Range.

"We have to be sensitive of their concerns and cognizant of the fact that bankruptcy is not an option," Bakk said.

Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon, DFL-Duluth, said she had not been invited to the dinner meeting and would be outraged by any plan that conflicts with agreements Northwest made with the city and the state. Prettner Solon said she was advised Oberstar's office was trying quietly to cut a deal with Northwest aimed at protecting Northland jobs.

"But we saw this coming a year ago," she said. Any arrangement with Airbus that reduced employment numbers for Duluth-area workers would be unacceptable, she said.

"At the least it would be a violation of the intention of the law," Prettner Solon said. "The reason Duluth put the money into that facility was to provide jobs for Duluth workers."

Prettner Solon was president of the Duluth City Council and the Duluth Economic Development Authority when the deal between Northwest and the city was made.

In return for city money, the airline pledged its Duluth base would employ at least 350 people.

Duluth Mayor Herb Bergson previously estimated payments on those bonds annually cost Duluth about $850,000. However, Bergson did not respond to the News Tribune's request for comment on the situation Monday.

Anderson said the work force at Duluth's base recognizes the stakes in play should Northwest hand over the facility to another company.

"We have 272 lives hanging on the edge," Anderson said. "We workers deserve a seat at the table."