Union: Northwest Airlines Drops Demand for More Non-U.S. Flight Attendants

MINNEAPOLIS_Northwest Airlines Corp. has backed away from a demand to staff its overseas flights with mostly non-U.S. flight attendants, the union that has been fighting the idea at the bargaining table said Monday.

It's one more sign that Northwest and its flight attendants and pilots are closing in on a pay-cut deal in advance of a Wednesday deadline set by New York bankruptcy judge Allan Gropper. Last week, Northwest said it had the outlines of an agreement with pilots on who would fly regional jets. Those two issues had been at the heart of the strike threats by the two unions, although several other contentious issues remain.

Gropper has said he will rule by Wednesday whether Northwest can reject its union contracts with pilots and flight attendants. Talks with both groups continued Monday in New York.

Northwest is still seeking to use foreign flight attendants if there are shortages among U.S. staffers, said Professional Flight Attendants Association spokeswoman Karen Schultz. The union opposes that.

"This is the closest I've seen us. It's just a matter of getting a deal done by" Wednesday, Schultz said.

Northwest is the largest carrier between the U.S. and Japan, where it maintains a hub. It has long sought to bolster the number of Asian-language flight attendants on those routes. But union rules make seniority the main factor in who gets assigned to those sought-after flights.

Schultz said the union has proposed phasing in a system where language skill would be considered along with seniority in assigning flight attendants to overseas flights.

Northwest's proposal to hire mostly non-U.S. - and nonunion - flight attendants for those flights caused an uproar. Other flight attendant unions spoke out against it. And the PFAA said 120 members of Congress wrote to the company to oppose the idea.

Schultz declined to say whether judge Gropper was among those opposed, saying only, "I can't go into detail about it, but I can tell you it was seen as an outrageous request."

On its weekend hot line message to members, the union said Gropper has "suggested the company may be entitled to certain efficiencies due to business, specifically (local) language speakers on international flights."

Northwest declined to comment specifically on the union's claim that it had backed off on the overseas flight issue. Spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch repeated the company's position that it's "flexible on contract terms with our unions as long as those unions are able to meet their cost savings target." In PFAA's case, it's savings of $195 million (€164.5 million) a year.