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Northwest Says Operations Normal Despite Strike

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Time now for business news.

A public relations battle is under way between Northwest Airlines and its mechanics' union over how well the company is weathering the effects of the union's strike. Union members walked off the job early Saturday. The airline is using some 1,500 replacement workers to fill in for the 2,900 striking mechanics. Gauging the success of the airline's operation so far can depend on whom you're asking. Minnesota Public Radio's Annie Baxter reports.

ANNIE BAXTER reporting:

For months, Northwest and the mechanics' union have debated what would happen in the event of a walkout. The union predicted the results could be catastrophic. The airline said it could outsource much of the mechanics' work. Now that the strike is under way, Northwest insists its flight operations are normal and most media outlets are repeating that claim. Union members like Stan Martin, who's out walking the picket line outside the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, acknowledged Northwest is controlling the message.

Mr. STAN MARTIN (Mechanics' Union Member): Well, obviously they have a corner on the media, much more than we do. I mean, that's just the nature of the game. But we'll let the airplanes do the talking. When they're all parked in a week or two, I think that'll speak volumes.

BAXTER: Northwest's fleet is the oldest in the country, and the mechanics' union insists that the replacement workers won't be able to maintain it safely and effectively. Northwest counters that the workers are trained according to federal safety standards.

But some union members have gone so far as to suggest that a crash is in the offing. Joe Brancatelli says that's an extreme assessment. He publishes a business travel Web site called JoeSentMe.com.

Mr. JOE BRANCATELLI (JoeSentMe.com): Northwest chose one way to spin the media, which is, `We have operations. We're flying, so we're winning.' The union's overstated, at least initially, what they thought would happen. They told people planes are going to be falling from the skies and they're not going to fly.

BAXTER: Brancatelli says the union's fiery rhetoric is doing it a disservice. He says if the union really wants to prove the strike is disrupting Northwest, it would do what he's doing--counting the airline's delays and cancellations since the strike began. Each day Brancatelli samples 99 of Northwest's flights by looking at flight schedules on its Web site. On average, he's finding that only about half the flights are running on time. According to statistics from the US Department of Transportation, last year at this time about 81 percent of Northwest's flights were on time. Brancatelli says someone recently asked him whether anyone else besides him is tracking Northwest's flight information.

Mr. BRANCATELLI: And the answer is yes. There's one company doing it. It's called Northwest Airlines. That they will not release the on-time performance indicates that their internal numbers are actually worse than the surveys we're doing.

BAXTER: While that's just speculation, the company certainly is keeping a tight lid on its flight information. It recently stopped posting its daily on-time performance on its internal employee computer system. And unless travelers have been glued to the departure and arrival screens at the airport, the main message they've been hearing from Northwest Airlines so far is that everything's fine. For NPR News, I'm Annie Baxter in St. Paul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Annie Baxter
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