By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 25, 2006
Northwest Airlines Corp. was headed to court today in a last-ditch effort to prevent its flight attendants from going forward with a threatened strike tonight.
U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero in New York is to decide whether the flight attendants are legally allowed to strike. Last week, U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Allan L. Gropper, who is overseeing Northwest's Chapter 11 reorganization, effectively ruled in favor of the flight attendants, saying he had no jurisdiction to bar the strike. Northwest appealed the ruling.
The Justice Department has also asked Marrero to block the strike, saying the work stoppage would cripple the air transportation system. Justice officials said a strike would violate the Railway Labor Act, which requires that both sides of an airline labor dispute negotiate until a mediator determines that further talks would be fruitless. In this case, both sides have said they are open to negotiations, but no talks have been scheduled.
If a strike occurs, Northwest said it has arranged to use certified, stand-in workers to maintain operations. The airline's appromixmately 9,000 attendants plan to begin a series of sporadic, unannounced work stoppages at 10:01 p.m. in response to proposed wage and benefits cuts of $195 million. The airline has said it needs the savings to emerge from bankruptcy protection.
"We'll take all the necessary actions to protect our company, and contingency plans are in place," Northwest spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch said.
Analysts say a strike could cause delays and cancellations of a number of flights and potentially disrupt the Northwest system. Even minor service disruptions caused by possible action could be disastrous for Northwest, which has been operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection since September, said Raymond E. Neidl, a Northwest analyst with Calyon Securities Inc.
"At best the strike will delay Northwest's ability to come out of bankruptcy, and at worst it could force them into liquidation." Neidl said.
Neidl said he believed a strike would be averted at the last minute, either by a new agreement or court action. He said, however, that the threat of a strike may have caused people to rebook flights and avoid Northwest, especially during the Labor Day holiday.
Some travel agents were advising customers to fly on other carriers until the labor issue is resolved.
"We're telling everyone to stay away," said Michael Liu, who owns ASAP International Travel Inc. in the District. "People have been calling trying to rebook their Northwest flights because of the strike."
Northwest declined to comment on whether passengers were booking with other carriers.
Northwest, of Eagan, Minn., is the fifth-largest U.S. carrier. The airline would not say how it would implement its strategy to prevent disruptions in the event of a strike. Based on the airline's actions during previous labor disputes, the company has probably trained employees from other divisions of the company to step in, said Michael Miller, a partner with Velocity Group, an aviation consulting firm in the District. In August 2005, the airline quickly moved in laid-off workers to replace the 4,400 mechanics who walked off their jobs.
"Northwest has had enough labor issues in the past that they have trained people as flight attendants over the last few years," he said. "They have a backup plan for this."
The new wage and benefit terms were imposed on flight attendants July 31, after they rejected agreements negotiated between the airline and the union for a second time.
"Northwest has imposed terms that include drastic pay and benefit reductions, drastic changes to work rules and increased work time. Flight attendants don't have any say in this," said Corey Caldwell, spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants. Referring to the strike strategy Create Havoc Around Our System, or CHAOS, she added: "Chaos is coming to Northwest."
Northwest's Ebenhoch said the airline was open to negotiation and did not expect a full-scale walkout. "Our first priority remains to reach an agreement with our workforce," he said.
While both sides appear unflinching in the matter, Darryl Jenkins, a professor of airline management at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., described the potential strike as a "kinder, gentler" version of the CHAOS walkout method.
The flight attendants "don't want people to book away from Northwest because they understand the precarious position the airline is in," Jenkins said. "They're not trying to take the company down. They're saying, 'We're just trying to survive, and we know you're just trying to survive.' "