Mesaba Sides Head Back to Court

Mesaba Aviation Inc. asked a bankruptcy judge on Tuesday to block a threatened strike that could begin shortly after midnight if the Northwest Airlines feeder fails to make a deal with its unions.

Mesaba followed Northwest, its only customer, into bankruptcy last year and has said its workers need to take pay cuts so it can compete with other regional carriers for Northwest's business. Those talks have failed to produce a deal so far, and on Monday a bankruptcy judge gave Mesaba permission to impose terms on its pilots, flight attendants and mechanics.

The airline has said it may do that at 1:01 a.m. EDT Wednesday. Mesaba spokeswoman Elizabeth Costello said it's not assured that they will impose terms without an injunction.

The unions have said if Mesaba imposes terms they'll strike -- something that could put Mesaba out of business for good.

In asking U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Gregory Kishel to block a strike, Mesaba is following a move that Northwest Airlines Corp. made in its dispute with flight attendants. In that case, a bankruptcy judge in New York declined to block Northwest flight attendants from striking, but a different judge banned a strike.

Both sides said they expected negotiations to continue after Kishel rules on Tuesday. The airline has said it wants 17.5 percent in labor savings.

'The only way that Mesaba is going to be able to pull out of this mess is to get a deal done,' Kris Pierson, a pilots union spokesman, said. 'Imposed terms will not work for the labor groups at Mesaba, whether there's a strike injunction or not.'

Union officials said they expected many employees to resign if the airline gets its injunction and imposes terms.

Mesaba flies to nearly 100 cities in America and Canada, funneling passengers to Northwest's hubs in Minneapolis, Detroit and Memphis, Tenn. It's the only air carrier serving some of those cities.

Mesaba has warned that its financial situation is deteriorating and it can't tap into $24 million in debt financing unless it reaches a deal with its unions. At the same time, the airline's creditors are getting impatient and could push for liquidation in an attempt to recover some of their money.

Mesaba gets all of its planes, passengers and revenue from Northwest, and when Northwest filed for bankruptcy protection in September 2005, Mesaba followed about a month later.

Northwest has been pressuring Mesaba and its other regional feeder, Pinnacle Airlines, to cut costs. The feeder airlines fly under the Northwest Airlink name, funneling passengers into Northwest hubs.

The big airline has said it has a contingency plan for a strike, but has declined to provide details. Northwest pilots have said they won't fill in for striking Mesaba pilots.

In cities where Mesaba offers the only air service, the situation was being watched closely. That included Fort Dodge, Iowa, where Mesaba's three arrivals and three departures daily save people a four-hour drive to Minneapolis.

'We love our service,' said Rhonda Chambers, manager of Fort Dodge Regional Airport. 'We want to make sure it stays. It's very important to our community.'

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