Northwest cancellations spike

Airline blames weather, but unhappy pilots union faults management for not having enough crews to staff cockpits; passenger woes could continue.

By Chris Isidore, senior writer

NEW YORK ( -- Northwest Airlines is seeing about one out of eight flights cancelled due to lack of flight crews in recent days, as the pilots union steps up attacks on management that could signal problems ahead for the airline and its customers.

The cancellations may be a sign of labor pains at the nation's No. 5 airline that, if they persist, could severely inconvenience passengers throughout the busy summer travel period. Finding alternative travel arrangements for those who had been booked on cancelled flights is becoming more difficult due to nearly full flights across the industry.

Northwest cancelled more than 12 percent of its flights Monday, blaming problems on recent bad weather, but its pilots union is blaming bad management.
Northwest cancelled more than 12 percent of its flights Monday, blaming problems on recent bad weather, but its pilots union is blaming bad management.

In a statement, Northwest (Charts) is blaming recent bad weather on the East Coast and Midwest for disrupting its schedule and leaving its pilots and first officers without the allowed flight hours they needed to staff all its flights. It said it is working to correct the problem, relaxing travel restrictions to help ensure flight reaccommodation as quickly as possible and proactively canceling flights well in advance to allow adequate time to rebook.

But the cancellations at Northwest are far in excess of other major U.S. airlines. The Air Line Pilots Association at Northwest said the problem is due to management wining changes in work rules that have stretched the pilots to the breaking point. The union says that even the typical delays encountered in the course of normal operations forces flight crews to use up the on-duty and flight hours they're allowed under FAA regulations, causing the shortage.

"How could it not be bad planning? If it was weather you'd see it across the board at other airlines," said Wade Blaufuss, a 757 first officer for Northwest and a spokesman for the union. "We have a fatigue problem, a morale problem and a stress problem."

Blaufuss said that the changes in work rules at Northwest have not only stretched active flight crews too far, but it has discouraged needed furloughed pilots from returning to work. Northwest said it still has 385 pilots on furlough, and 5,000 active pilots on staff. Blaufuss said most of those 385 have been called back and postponed returning because of the current work conditions.

Minnesota-based Northwest only emerged from bankruptcy on May 31, marking the first time since 2002 that none of the nation's major airlines have been in bankruptcy court.

But Northwest emerged without the pay increases for rank-and-file employees that were instituted at rival Delta Air Lines (Charts), which filed for bankruptcy on the same day in 2005 and emerged a month earlier. The pay packages approved for Northwest executives during the bankruptcy process has sparked protest by Northwest union members.

ALPA passed a resolution of no confidence in Northwest management at its June 15 union meeting, stating "all indications are that staffing is below what is required to properly fly the summer schedule and this staffing shortage will have a noticeable and costly impact on NWA's summer flying, revenue and passenger goodwill."

The pilots union is also urging its members to strictly follow the contract on what flights they are willing to fly.

"Fly safe. Fly the contract. Don't fly sick. Don't fly fatigued. Don't fly hungry," the union's hotline message to members recently urged pilots.

An airline spokesman would not comment if management believes a work-to-rule job action is part of the problem. ALPA's Blaufuss said the problem is not a work-to-rule campaign by the union but the fact that management's current plans don't allow for any disruptions or problems that naturally occur.

"It all looks great on paper. 'Let's schedule to the max possible with no slack in the system,'" said Blaufuss. "But it's an airline, with a lot of moving parts. We're not manufacturing widgets. All these things have to work in synch."

Northwest has a recent history of some of the most difficult labor relations in the industry. Pilots there went on strike in August 1998, the last major airline pilots group to go on strike.

The airline also won a strike by the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association in August 2005, about a month before it filed for bankruptcy protection, using a combination of replacement workers, management and outside contractors to replace virtually all of its unionized mechanics.

The union is also on record objecting to the $26.6 million in stock and options recently granted CEO Doug Steenland, even after Northwest pilots agreed to concessions that saved $358 million in labor and benefit costs annually during the company's bankruptcy court reorganization.

According to flight tracking service FlightStats, 173, or about 12 percent, of Northwest's 1,418 flights scheduled for Monday were cancelled.

That compares to only 2.1 percent, on average, of Monday's flights that were cancelled at the nation's other major airlines - American Airlines (Charts, Fortune 500), United Airlines (Charts, Fortune 500), Delta Air Lines (Charts), Continental Airlines (Charts, Fortune 500), US Airways (Charts, Fortune 500), Southwest Airlines (Charts, Fortune 500) and JetBlue Airways (Charts). American had the most cancellations other than Northwest, but it was only forced to halt 5.6 percent of its flights.

In fact, the cancelled flights Monday at Northwest exceeded the 134 cancelled at the six other major airlines combined, other than No. 1 carrier American.

And Northwest does not yet seem to be past the problems with cancelled flights. As of 2:45 p.m. ET Tuesday, the airline had already cancelled 143 flights, or more than 10 percent of its flights scheduled for Tuesday.

(Correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect figure for the stock and bonus paid to Northwest CEO Doug Steenland. regrets the error.) Top of page