NWA to Cut As Many As 930 Mechanics Jobs

Northwest Airlines will ground two dozen jets and cut as many as 930 mechanics jobs in the Twin Cities by year's end as it tries to cope with record-high fuel prices and a domestic air-travel market in which too many seats are chasing too few passengers.

The Eagan-based airline said Wednesday that 130 mechanics jobs will be cut by May, and said between 700 and 800 additional jobs could be targeted over the remainder of the year as it parks the planes, mostly aging DC-9 jets.

Since the end of 2000, Northwest has eliminated about 3,700 maintenance jobs. Northwest's message, Twin Cities local mechanics union president Ted Ludwig said, is, "So, we won't need you guys."

Specifically, Northwest wouldn't need mechanics -- who earn $50,000 to $70,000 a year -- to perform the intense maintenance that many older DC-9s require.

Closing for sure, Northwest said, will be one heavy maintenance operation at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, which will force the 130 job cuts.

Even though no cuts are predicted at Northwest Airlines' Duluth maintenance base, job reductions in the Twin Cities could have implications for Northland mechanics.

Randy Reents, vice president of Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association Local 35, which represents Northwest mechanics in Duluth, said he wouldn't be surprised to see displaced technicians from the Twin Cities move north and bump workers with less seniority out of jobs in the Twin Ports. Reents said that in the past few months, about a half-dozen mechanics who lost work in the Twin Cities have exercised their seniority to claim jobs at the Duluth maintenance base.

Ludwig suspects that Northwest's talk of 800 more job cuts could be a negotiating tactic, meant to try to soften up the mechanics at the bargaining table.

The mechanics and Northwest are in contract talks now, with the airline trying to extract 11 percent to 17 percent wage cuts and further reduce the mechanics' ranks.

As of the end of 2004, Northwest had 152 DC-9s in its fleet. The average age of the planes, which seat 78 to 125 passengers, was 34 years. During their most-thorough heavy maintenance checks, the planes essentially are rebuilt, restored to like-new condition.

The planes also are relative gas hogs. Northwest's newest Airbus jets, for instance, are up to 30 percent more fuel efficient than the jets they're replacing.

With the grounding of the planes, Northwest's domestic flying essentially will be flat this year, compared with 2004. Initially, it had planned to slightly increase domestic flying this year.

Now, there will be fewer flights on some routes, with Northwest expecting to fly more 124-passenger Airbus A-319s.

The airline, which has lost about $2.5 billion on its operations in the past four years, has been slashing costs aggressively. On the labor front, it's been pushing its employee unions for nearly $1 billion in annual wage and other givebacks. That target could rise, Northwest has said.

In coming months, the confrontation between Northwest and its mechanics and their union could be the airline's most bruising.

No other work group at Northwest has seen more members lose jobs. Much of the work has gone to outside repair and maintenance firms, including some in China and Singapore. And Northwest wants to raise the negotiated cap on the amount of maintenance work it can send to those outside vendors in the U.S. and overseas.

Northwest, like other major carriers, has been tapping outside companies to handle more of its plane maintenance. It's the heavy maintenance, including laborious operations in which planes are torn apart, inspected for cracks and wear, and then rebuilt, that carriers are most keen to outsource.

Such operations can cost $3 million to $4 million per plane, with labor accounting for two-thirds or more of the cost.

With Northwest holding its flying flat this year, the flight attendants' union doesn't expect any layoffs. But there could be a push for voluntary leaves, the Professional Flight Attendants Association says.

The Air Line Pilots Association at Northwest has indicated that the reduced flying means 60 furloughed pilots scheduled for recall will not return to work, leaving 500 on layoff.

Northwest employed about 38,000 people at the end of 2004, down from 53,000 four years ago. It employs about 16,000 workers in Minnesota.