ST. PAUL, Minn. – Northwest Airlines’ strike contingency plan will be put to the test on today with travelers at the center of the experiment.

As Northwest’s mechanics union went on strike early this morning, the Eagan, Minn.-based airline maintained it expects no travel disruptions. It vows to keep flying a full schedule and has trained more than 1,000 replacement mechanics.

Skeptics and the union say the airline is overly optimistic and there’s bound to be mishaps; they say on Saturday, travelers will face flight delays and cancellations. Travelers also may encounter a slow company Web site and long waits in trying to reach Northwest by telephone.

“The union wants you to think there’ll be a whole bunch of confusion. Northwest wants you to think it’s business as usual,” said Bill Neuman, president of Travel One Inc. in Bloomington. “What can travelers expect? Business won’t be totally smooth, but it won’t be as bad as you think.”

Travel agents advise consumers to stay updated on Northwest’s situation, reconfirm their flights ahead of time and check for flight delays. Some local travel agents are open Saturday and are adding extra staff to deal with a possible barrage of phone calls or customers’ travel changes.

One thing’s for sure: Twin Cities travelers on Saturday will see hundreds of mechanics picketing at the Minneapolis-St. Paul international Airport. Northwest is seeking $176 million in wages and other cost concessions from its mechanics as part of an overall $1.1 billion in labor cost savings it says it needs to survive as a business. It wants to cut the number of mechanics jobs in half.

If a strike results in canceled flights, Northwest maintains it will refund the unused portion of tickets, re-book passengers on another Northwest flight, and, in some cases, re-book with other airlines.

Certain passengers may get seated first. For any canceled flight, Northwest said it first rebooks seats, in order, for minors traveling alone, unaccompanied adults who need assistance, Elite members of its WorldPerks frequent-flier program, full-fare passengers, disabled passengers and then all other passengers.

If Northwest cancels a flight “well in advance” of the departure time, its policy is to contact travelers about their flight options, according to the company’s Web site. If Northwest cancels a flight and can’t re-book a customer on the day they were scheduled to depart and overnight lodging is needed, it says it will “make every effort” to provide a free hotel room near the airport and meal vouchers.

Other airlines, including Delta, Frontier and United, say they’ll try to accommodate as many of Northwest’s passengers as possible if a strike result in cancellations or schedule disruptions, but they also say their own full planes could hamper seating for extra passengers.

Mendota Heights-based Sun Country Airlines also could increase its capacity by rerouting its planes to high-demand cities and AirTran Airways is prepared to accept Northwest passengers on a stand-by basis if flights are cancelled, officials said.

Mesaba and Pinnacle airlines, which handle Northwest’s regional flying in the Twin Cities, have said they plan to fly full schedules through the strike.

The Minneapolis-St. Paul airport and the Detroit Metro Airport-where Northwest also dominates-are prepared to deal with any situation-from travel delays to picket lines to labor unrest. The Twin Cities airport is ready to supply cots and mats and the Detroit airport will hand out 1,000 pillows and blankets to travelers who are stranded or delayed overnight because of the strike.

“With (replacement mechanics), there could be some hiccups here and there” said Patrick Hogan, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission, which runs the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. “The big picture is whether they can keep flying. At this point, there’s no reason to think they can’t.”

Northwest accounts for 61 percent of passengers who fly in and out of the Twin Cities airport, where it operates 1,500 flights daily.

Some travelers earlier Friday evening at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport were worried about a possible Northwest strike. Several Northwest passengers were concerned about being able to return home or reach their destination in time for work, meetings or other plans.

Tricia Lantinen, 23, of Plymouth, was waiting to check-in for her Northwest flight at 7 p.m. to Orlando, Fla., for vacation.

“If they go on strike, will I be stuck there? How will I get back? Will they help us?” said Lantinen, who is scheduled to return to the Twin Cities next week. “Yeah, I’ve definitely thought about it. I’ve already told my boss that I might not be back for work.”



(c) 2005, (St. Paul, Minn.).

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-08-20-05 0029EDT


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