MINNEAPOLIS - Northwest Airlines brought replacement workers on the job Saturday after mechanics went on strike to protest big pay cuts and layoffs that would have cut their numbers almost in half.
The nation's fourth largest carrier has pledged to keep its planes in the air, saying it has been preparing for the strike for more than a year and a half. It said it has lined up about 1,900 replacement workers, vendor employees and managers to begin filling shifts Saturday.
The airline also shifted to its scaled-back fall flying schedule Saturday, earlier than usual.
After months of talks broke off in Washington, D.C., just before midnight Friday, union spokesman Jim Young said the mechanics would rather see the airline go into bankruptcy than agree to Northwest's terms. The Airline Mechanics Fraternal Association represents about 11 percent of Northwest's 40,000 workers.
It's the first major airline strike since Northwest pilots grounded the airline for 20 days in 1998. AMFA has struck only four times in its history, most recently in 1980.
In May, AMFA mechanics at bankrupt United Airlines threatened to strike if a judge imposed pay cuts. Instead, mechanics approved a contract that included a 3.9 percent pay cut and fewer benefits.
"I knew this strike was going to happen," said Jim Oquist, a Northwest mechanic for more than 20 years who was picketing at the Twin Cities airport. "Imagine how you would feel if you had worked that hard for 20 years and they tear it all down."
But the mechanics are striking alone. Pilots, flight attendants and other ground workers all said they would keep working. A federal judge also barred mechanics at Northwest regional carrier Mesaba Airlines from conducting a sympathy strike.
The mechanics weren't counting on the support of other workers, said Steve MacFarlane, assistant national director of AMFA. They're betting replacement workers won't know what to do with Northwest's fleet, which includes some DC-9s that are more than 30 years old.
"Obviously, we would have like their support," MacFarlane said of the other unions. "Once Northwest is done with us they're going to go after them."
Some Northwest passengers said they were uneasy Friday night.
"I'm a business traveler. I'm from Detroit, this is my home. I don't have a lot of options," said sales executive Jason Wells after landing at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, one of Northwest's hubs. "Let's just get 'em to agree on something, that's all."
Northwest has said it needs $1.1 billion in labor savings from all its workers. Only pilots have agreed, accepting a 15 percent pay cut worth $300 million when combined with cuts for salaried employees.
The airline had sought a 25 percent pay cut for mechanics, as well as 2,000 more layoffs - almost halving a workforce that is already half the size it was in 2001. Total savings under the plan would have been $176 million.
Northwest trained its replacement workers in Arizona this summer. Last week, in a rare burst of openness, Northwest executives laid out details of its plan to fly without the union mechanics. The company also pointed out that 37 percent of its maintenance is already done by outside vendors.
However, in an Aug. 9 regulatory filing, the airline acknowledged that it can't be sure its replacement workers would allow it fly a full schedule.
"Any labor action that results in a significant operational disruption, even for a short period of time, could have a severe detrimental impact on the Company's financial condition," it wrote, and that would "substantially increase the risk" that it would need to file for bankruptcy protection.
The Federal Aviation Administration has said it would increase inspections of Northwest operations. Mechanics have questioned its ability to do that, saying FAA inspectors are already stretched too thin.
In a hotline message to employees Saturday morning, Northwest CEO Doug Steenland said the FAA has monitored the negotiating process closely and "has stated that we are compliant with their stringent regulations."
He also said Northwest would spend $3 billion on fuel this year - 66 percent more than last year - if fuel prices stay where they are. But he said Northwest is beginning its fall schedule earlier than usual, reducing capacity by about 17 percent.
"Change is never easy," he said. "This week we are making decisions that are especially difficult, but they are the right ones."
Eagan, Minn.-based Northwest and its regional carriers operate more than 1,500 flights to 750 cities. It has hubs in Memphis, Detroit, Minneapolis, Tokyo, and Amsterdam.