Heads Up: Northwest Precanceling Flights

Those planning to travel on Northwest Airlines over the holidays would be wise to check their answering machines often.

Northwest is taking the unusual step of canceling flights seven to eight days in advance due to a backlog of maintenance on planes.

Passengers who have seats on those flights are being called personally by Northwest employees to be rebooked on other flights.

Company attorney says 431 flights had been canceled due to maintenance from November 21st through Saturday.

Northwest officials say canceling flights ahead of time gives customers more time to rearrange their travel plans.

“We’ll reaccommodate people in the most convenient way for them — whether it’s mechanical or weather or something else,” said Northwest spokesman Jon Austin.

The Eagan-based airline runs about 1,700 flights per day. The roughly 20 per day that are being canceled are ones expected to cause the least disruption.

Northwest officials attribute the cancellations to an alleged slowdown by mechanics who have not had a new contract for five years. Some members of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association say the cancellations serve as a way to stack the deck against the union.

Slowdown Denied

The airline — which on Monday said a $20 million fine against the union would “make Northwest whole” — says mechanics have refused overtime and slowed productivity, causing an increase in cancellations and delays.

Union leaders agreed to a preliminary injunction, but denied mechanics had done anything to disrupt Northwest’s flight schedule or that a work slowdown existed. Ronald Mitchell, a crew chief on the maintenance line, said canceled and delayed flights that are grouped as maintenance problems could be results of things other than a work slowdown.

An airline crew may refuse to fly on a plane, an aircraft part may not be available or aging planes may take more maintenance time before they’re safe to fly, he said.

U.S. District Judge David Doty has given attorneys for both sides until Dec. 13 to argue whether Monday’s hearing should be reopened to look at sanctions on the union, which represents about 9,500 mechanics and cleaners.

Meanwhile, Northwest and its pilots’ union agreed Thursday to begin early negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement. The move is an attempt to reach an accord before the pilots’ contract becomes amendable in September 2002.