Havoc on the Rise at Northwest

June 28, 2007
NWA passengers cope with widespread flight cancellations

As Northwest Airlines passengers continued to cope Tuesday with widespread flight cancellations, the outlook for the next few days was shaping up into four bad words:

More of the same.

Industry experts warned that the airline will be forced to continue canceling a large number of flights through the end of the month as it deals with a shortage of pilots.

Northwest has canceled more than 825 flights since Friday, including at least 201 as of late Tuesday, creating havoc for travelers. That's more than 10 percent of its flights Friday through Monday, excluding short-hop Airlink flights.

"I would rate them, on a scale of one to 10, as a negative 10," said Richard Morrissett of Davison on Tuesday. His NWA flight from Detroit to Flint was canceled Thursday because of crew shortages.

"They are going to self-destruct, and it won't be anyone's fault except their own."

Metro Airport has been hit the hardest by the cancellations in recent days. Since June 20, the airline has canceled more than 250 flights out of the airport.

The airline declined Tuesday to waive cancellation or change penalties for passengers who might want to avoid flying this week.

Instead, it stuck to its explanation that bad weather earlier this month was to blame. Late Tuesday, it added air-traffic control and pilot absenteeism as reasons for the canceled flights.

NWA has been out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy for only 27 days.

That has been enough time to reignite the festering animosity between management and its pilots union, which blames NWA, the nation's fifth-largest airline, for poor planning. Its members declined to work more than the contractually allowed 90 flight hours per month. The FAA limits a pilot's flight hours to 100 per month. Pilots were acting responsibly this week by declining hours for which they don't have the stamina, NWA pilots union spokesman Monty Montgomery said Tuesday. Montgomery said 396 pilots are waiting to be called back to work. The Air Line Pilots Association Web site says 5,100 pilots are currently flying Northwest planes.

"We tried to warn the airline" it needed more pilots this month, he said. "Pilots' careers and the future of their families are tied to the fate of this airline. We didn't give up 40 percent of our pay for this to fail. We are hopeful that Northwest will succeed."

Even before the summer started, the nation's airlines overall weren't doing so well in terms of service.

From January through April, only 73 percent of major airlines' domestic flights arrived on time, and 1 in every 130 bags was mishandled, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

NWA, which just last week was rated last among eight major airlines in a J.D. Power and Associates customer-satisfaction survey, now faces more unhappy customers.

Some analysts still view the mayhem at Northwest as a labor dispute.

The pilots union has said it's unhappy about being forced to make $623 million in annual concessions, including a 24 percent pay cut, while the carrier plans to give $297 million in shares to Chief Executive Officer Doug Steenland and other high-ranking officials.

"No matter what anybody is saying, this is a labor-management battle," said Terry Trippler, an airline watchdog based in Minneapolis. "The pilots union is sending a message. I don't know how long this is going to last, but the consumer is, once again, caught in the middle."

Ellen Ernst Kossek, a labor expert at Michigan State University, said Northwest needs to mend its relationship with labor quickly.

"There were concessions from labor and perhaps not many from management, in terms of executive compensation," Kossek said, referring to a $26-million bonus Steenland received once the airline emerged from bankruptcy on May 31.

"When you reorganize, there should be equal amounts of pain suffered by all," Kossek said. "You have to focus on culture change and a more cooperative relationship.

"This is a huge issue for Michigan and for the Midwest."

Airline watchdog Joe Brancatelli of the Web site http://joesentme.com, said NWA is "an airline that simply doesn't care."

By Ellen Creager and Margarita Bauza. Bloomberg News contributed to this report.

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