Northwest to Cut 600 Mechanics by July

April 13, 2005
Eagan-based Northwest Airlines will lay off 600 more mechanics by July 1, a move that it warned last month could be coming.

Northwest Airlines will lay off 600 more mechanics by July 1, a move it signaled last month when it said it would ground dozens of aging DC-9 jets. Northwest disclosed then that it would be laying off some 140 mechanics for sure, and might furlough some 700 more by year's end.

The struggling carrier pulled the trigger on most of them Wednesday.

"This action is the result of the previously announced grounding of 30 DC-9s that could impact up to 900 positions," Northwest spokesman Bill Mellon said.

With the latest round of layoffs, the airline will have cut more than 4,400 mechanics and related workers, or more than 45 percent of the 9,300 it employed at the end of 2000. Its overall work force declined from 53,500 at the end of 2000 to 39,342 at the end of last year.

"People should be aware there will be less scrutiny of our aircraft by certified mechanics as they whittle us 0down," said local mechanics' union president Ted Ludwig, who is among those who will be laid off.

Ludwig said Northwest also is aiming to avoid paying eligible mechanics 26 weeks of severance pay.

"All the people left now qualify for 26 weeks of severance pay," Ludwig said. "But they (Northwest) say they aren't paying. That's one of the worst things they could do when they're getting rid of guys who gave them 20 years of their lives."

Asked to comment, Mellon said, "The furloughing of employees is always unpleasant and difficult." He added that Northwest has faced much adversity beyond its control, including record-high fuel prices and a lag in business travel.

Most of the latest layoffs, 450, will occur among mechanics assigned to "heavy-check" hangars at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, Ludwig said. Meanwhile, 150 mechanics working in support shops also will be furloughed.

Even if the cuts don't reduce the total number of employees at the maintenance base that Northwest Airlines operates in Duluth, they could have an effect on the makeup of its work force. Mechanics displaced from jobs elsewhere in Northwest's system could exercise their seniority to claim jobs in Duluth, bumping junior workers out of their positions.

As of the end of 2004, Northwest had 152 DC-9s in service. The average age of the planes, which seat 78 to 125 passengers, was 34 years. Because it owns all but a handful of the DC-9s in its fleet, Northwest can ground them without having to worry about making lease or loan payments on planes it's not flying.

With the grounding of 30 DC-9s, Northwest says it will need fewer mechanics, who earn $50,000 to $70,000 a year, specifically to do the intense heavy checks in which planes are overhauled.

Laid-off mechanics would have the right to claim a job elsewhere in the country with Northwest.

The Eagan-based airline has lost about $2.5 billion in the past four years. It has been slashing costs aggressively. On the labor front, it's pushing its employees and their unions for $1.1 billion in annual pay cuts.

Northwest is trying to extract 11 percent to 17 percent wage cuts from the mechanics, further reduce their ranks and send more maintenance work to outside contractors in the United States and overseas.

Northwest, like other major airlines, has been tapping outside companies to handle more and 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, industry analysts say.

The mechanics argue that outside maintenance work is often of poorer quality and may be done in unsecured locations overseas. The airline insists quality and safety are not compromised and notes that it's behind the industry average in its levels of outsourced maintenance. Its current contract with the mechanics allows Northwest to outsource 38 percent of its aircraft maintenance, measured in dollars spent on labor.