After being frustrated over a silent Northwest Airlines on questions of jobs and the viability of the airline, the Senate Transportation Committee said it will subpoena Northwest's chief executive to appear before its members.
Members of the committee voted 12-1 Thursday to subpoena Douglas Steenland, chief executive of the Eagan-based airline to answer questions about job guarantees that the airline made with the state in exchange for financing in the early 1990s. Sen. Dick Day, R-Owatonna, was the sole dissenting vote.
For a legislative committee to issue a subpoena is highly unusual, said Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee who proposed the subpoena. "You meet your breaking point," he said after the vote. Failure to appear is a misdemeanor, he said.
On a voice vote, the committee also passed an amended bill to halt a nearly $1 billion expansion plan for the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The plan, originated by Northwest, would eventually add 46 new gates to the airport and, among other things, move most other airlines to the airport's smaller Humphrey Terminal. During testimony on the moratorium, committee members of the current expansion plan criticized Northwest for not sending executives to the meeting to respond to questions.
In a statement issued late Thursday, Northwest said, "We are disappointed and surprised that the Minnesota Senate committee took this action Thursday since we have been providing information to members of the Legislature anytime it has been requested.
"Northwest Airlines has never refused to provide information and as a public company provides information on a myriad of issues on a regular basis " the statement said.
On Wednesday, Murphy and senators Satveer Chaudhary, DFL-Fridley, the author of the moratorium bill and Dean Johnson, DFL-Wilmar, did meet with two Northwest executives.
"I was not satisfied with their answers," Murphy said. "All I want to know is whether or not this airline is going to be in business in five years. If it collapses, what does that mean for (the expansion plan). I don't think it will collapse, but a lot of people are asking."
Northwest's statement added that the airline believes a subpoena to be unnecessary.
The subpoena orders Steenland to appear at 3 p.m. April 12, before the committee.
Before the meeting, Northwest issued a letter to committee members declining to appear, citing ongoing labor relations with its mechanics. Mechanics were in full force at the hearing, testifying that their jobs will disappear if the expansion plan goes forward.
The airline said this week it now needs to cut labor costs by $1.1 billion a year to remain competitive. The pilots union is the only labor group that has agreed to a cost-cutting package.
Northwest has lost more than $2 billion and cut some 17,000 jobs since the start of 2001.