MINNEAPOLIS (AP) – Northwest Airlines jets roared into the sky over the heads of striking mechanics Saturday as the nation’s fourth-largest carrier turned over its maintenance to replacement workers on Day 1 of the industry’s first major walkout in seven years.

Northwest’s union mechanics walked out rather than take pay cuts and layoffs that would reduce their ranks almost by half. They don’t believe replacement workers will be able to maintain the fleet, the oldest among domestic airlines.

Saturday afternoon, Northwest was already facing at least one maintenance job: A jet landing in Detroit blew out four tires on the runway; no injuries were reported, and the airline said the cause was likely “an anti-skid braking issue” that had nothing to do with the strike.

Earlier Saturday, Northwest Vice President of Operations Andy Roberts apologized to travelers inconvenienced by what he described as a union slowdown Friday. He said the backlog of minor maintenance issues would be cleared up during the weekend.

“We certainly don’t expect delays to increase,” Roberts said. “As we work through these maintenance writeups, the operation should continue to improve.”

Northwest said there were few cancellations and most flights were on time, though the company declined to provide specifics. It switched to its fall schedule Saturday, a few weeks earlier than usual, lightening the schedule by about 17 percent.

“We never thought there was going to be an instantaneous effect from us walking off the job,” said Steve MacFarlane, assistant national director for the mechanic’s union.

“As airplanes break through the normal flight day, these airplane need to get fixed. And if these guys can’t fix them they get set off to the side,” MacFarlane said. “We’re confident that over a period of time it begins to snowball, and they’re going to have a real problem maintaining their schedule.”

Northwest’s pilots said the airline appeared to be running smoothly, said Hal Myers, spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association. The union is running an around-the-clock call-in center to answer pilot concerns about maintenance issues.

Myers said there were reports from Detroit on Friday that some of the tractors used to push airplanes back from the gate had damage to their ignitions, and that keys were broken off in the locks of some jetways. But “we didn’t see anything done to aircraft that would pose a safety threat,” he said.

The Friday slowdown was causing problems Saturday for Susan Lowery and her husband, Roy Zagieboylo, of Glastonbury, Conn. After 10 days in the Canadian Rockies near Calgary, they emerged Friday to discover the impending strike.

They made it to the Minneapolis hub, but were stranded as one flight after another was canceled Friday. Northwest paid for a hotel room, but on Saturday morning, the couple was still there.

They had few choices. Northwest flights accounted for 78 percent of the airport’s operations last year.

“Here, we’re sort of a captive audience. If we were in Chicago, we could get an American flight home, or we could get a United flight home. They’ve got sort of a monopoly here,” Lowery said.

It’s the first major airline strike since Northwest pilots grounded the airline for 20 days in 1998. But this time, the mechanics are striking alone. Pilots, flight attendants and other ground workers all said they would keep working, and a federal judge barred mechanics at Northwest regional carrier Mesaba Airlines from conducting a sympathy strike.

After talks broke off just before midnight Friday, union negotiator Jim Young said the mechanics would rather see the airline go into bankruptcy than agree to Northwest’s terms. The Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association represents 4,427 mechanics, cleaners and custodians, about 11 percent of Northwest’s 40,000 employees.

The mechanics average about $70,000 a year in pay, and the cleaners and custodians can make around $40,000. The company wanted to cut their wages by about 25 percent as part of an effort to save $176 million a year.

But it also wanted to lay off about 2,000 workers, almost halving a workforce that is already half the size it was in 2001. The cuts would be concentrated among cleaners and custodians. Northwest has said other airlines get that work done more cheaply with contractors.

Mike Tyrna, an aircraft cleaner for Northwest for 16 years, said union members had no choice but strike.

“I know this has devastated a lot of people,” he said. “But we can’t deal with this. It’s impossible in this economy to take a pay cut that extreme. We have families. We have things we have to pay for too.”

Northwest, based in Eagan, 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. It is currently negotiating with ground workers and flight attendants, and it has said it can re-open talks with pilots once it gets concessions from the other groups.

Northwest and its regional carriers operate more than 1,500 flights to 750 cities. It has hubs in Detroit, Minneapolis, Memphis, Tokyo and Amsterdam.



Associated Press writer Bree Fowler in Romulus, Mich., contributed to this report.



On the Net:

Northwest Airlines: http://www.nwa.com

AMFA: http://www.amfanatl.com

AP-ES-08-20-05 1913EDT


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