NWA Looks to Outsource Thousands of Jobs

What will it be like to work for the new Northwest Airlines, now under construction in bankruptcy? About a quarter of the Eagan, Minn.-based carrier's employees may never know.

The airline could have around 9,000 fewer pilots, flight attendants, baggage handlers and other workers on its payroll than it does now.

The airline wants the right to send those jobs to new subsidiaries and outside firms offering lower wages and fewer benefits than Northwest, union leaders say. And Northwest is intent on slashing the wages of many in-house workers by 20 percent or more.

"This really has to be a walkout issue," said Janet Gallimore, a Northwest customer service agent for29 years.

After a nearly three-year campaign, Northwest is making its final push to wrest huge labor savings from workers and define their roles at the airline. With a mix of recently negotiated and court- and company-imposed deals, Northwest has more than 60 percent of the $1.4 billion in annual labor cost cuts it wants.

If it can't talk its three biggest unions into contracts that give it the rest of the savings by mid-January, Northwest will ask a bankruptcy judge to impose contracts on the unions.

But for the unions, job losses are as painful as wage and benefits cuts, if not more so. And outsourcing may or may not pay off in the end for Northwest, some industry and labor analysts advise.

Northwest already has shed some 17,500 employees in the past five years or so. And the unions want to preserve as many of the carrier's remaining jobs as possible.

"They're not outsourcing executives who put us in bankruptcy, but they're talking about outsourcing the people who built this airline," said Bob Krabbe, assistant contract administrator for the Professional Flight Attendants Association.

Northwest would not comment on the outsourcing issue.

With flight attendants, Northwest wants a free hand to outsource all work on international flights, and on domestic flights flown with planes with 100 or fewer seats. That could cost about 2,600 flight attendants their jobs.

With no restrictions on staffing international flights, Krabbe expects Northwest would "look for the cheapest labor they can find -- India, China, sub-Sahara Africa."

Northwest's outsourcing would be unprecedented in the industry, said Corey Caldwell, spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents about46,000 workers at 22 airlines.

If Northwest outsources thousands of flight attendants' jobs, other carriers will follow its lead, she warned.

Northwest also wants to outsource the jobs of about 5,000 baggage handlers, customer service agents and other ground workers.

The airline would keep 3,100 such workers on its payroll -- with all of them in the Twin Cities or Detroit. At other airports, "ground operations" workers would either work for a new company, "Ground Co.," or an outside contractor.

It's with maintenance that airlines have had the most success with outsourcing. Even before about 3,000 mechanics struck Northwest in August, the airline outsourced about 40 percent of aircraft maintenance.

Now, Northwest keeps just 880 mechanics, outsourcing all other maintenance work.

Today, airlines can tap many firms -- in the United States and overseas -- that will maintain planes for them.

"Carriers that used to perform all this work in-house are outsourcing it to high-quality, low-cost vendors," said Steve Casley of BACK Aviation Solutions, an airline-consulting company in New Haven, Conn.

The benefits of outsourcing often are over-hyped, said John Budd, a professor of human resources at the University of Minnesota.

"Employees know they're being treated as disposable, and that can show up in their work," he said.

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