Northwest Airlines Corp.'s mechanics walked off the job Friday night in the first major U.S. airline strike in seven years, but the nation's fourth-largest carrier vowed to keep flying its full schedule with replacement workers.
The strike was called at 9:01 p.m. PDT by the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Assn., the union for 4,400 mechanics, aircraft cleaners and other ground workers at Northwest.
There were indications that the strike might already be having some impact on Northwest's schedule.
According to the airline's website, several late-evening flights out of its hubs at Minneapolis-St. Paul and Detroit were delayed -- some for several hours -- for maintenance-related reasons. The red-eye flight from Los Angeles International Airport to Detroit was scheduled to leave on time -- but some passengers were concerned about the return trip.
"I'm nervous about getting back home," said Kathie Gold, a 46-year-old Mission Viejo school teacher, as she waited with her son and daughter for the Detroit flight.
The walkout occurred as both sides remained far apart on the airline's demand for concessions. Northwest -- facing an imminent threat of bankruptcy after years of massive losses -- wants to eliminate about half of its AMFA jobs as part of its goal of slashing labor expenses.
The gulf between them was so wide that the strike was not unexpected. Indeed, Northwest had spent more than a year making preparations for a walkout, hiring about 1,200 replacement workers, assigning more than 300 managers to supervise aircraft maintenance and lining up outside vendors to handle the heavy work on its planes and engines.
Citing those plans, AMFA National Director O.V. DelleFemine called the negotiations with Northwest "an arrogant farce with a predetermined ending."
"Northwest wanted a strike, and now they have one," he said in a statement Friday night. "We apologize in advance to the flying public for the inconvenience and disruption the strike will cause."
But Northwest Chief Executive Douglas Steenland said: "We intend to operate our normal schedule." The airline also "remains in full compliance" with federal safety regulations, he said in a statement.
The Eagan, Minn.-based airline, which carries an average of 150,700 passengers daily on 1,500 flights, is so confident it can maintain service that it is not offering refunds or waiving change-of-flight penalties for passengers holding nonrefundable tickets.
Northwest also said its advance bookings going into the fall remained strong, and travel agents said there hadn't been a noticeable move by passengers to book away from the airline.
The airline has insisted that using replacement mechanics won't compromise the safety of its operations. Even so, the Federal Aviation Administration is "very closely monitoring the situation," FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said.
The agency has dispatched more inspectors to Northwest and has "been in very close touch with the company in the past few weeks," she said.
It could be several days before it's evident whether Northwest's strategy will succeed, assuming the strike lasts that long, as the airline begins rotating its 430-plane fleet through routine checks and repairs by replacement mechanics. That so-called line maintenance typically takes an aircraft out of service for two to five days.
Northwest's flight attendants and pilots reportedly said Friday night that they would not join the walkout, greatly reducing the chances that the strike would cripple the carrier. Last week, the International Assn. of Machinists, which formerly represented Northwest's mechanics and is still the union for other Northwest ground workers, said it wouldn't support AMFA.
The last major airline strike also involved Northwest, when its pilots walked off the job in August 1998, grounding the airline for 15 days. Since then there have been threatened job actions at various carriers, some of which were avoided when the White House intervened.
President Bush could step in if he felt the Northwest strike might upset the nation's air-travel network, but a White House spokesman has said Bush did not plan to get involved.
Regardless, "we do expect some sporadic problems" in terms of extended delays or cancellations at Northwest if the strike drags on, said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Assn., a passenger-advocacy group in the Washington, D.C., area.
Northwest's major hub airports are in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Detroit, Memphis and Tokyo. It's not a major player in the California market. It's the seventh-largest airline at LAX, where it has 22 departures with about 6,200 passengers a day.
The carrier also has 13 daily flights from San Francisco International Airport, six from San Diego International, two from Ontario International and four from John Wayne Airport in Orange County.
At LAX on Friday night, passengers for the Detroit flight waited anxiously as nearly a dozen striking mechanics wearing sandwich boards marched in a silent circle outside Terminal 2.