Protecting and Enhancing The Careers of Northwest Pilots

Northwest Pilots at a Glance

Pilots: 6,200 pilots (750 of whom are on furlough)

Operations: Approximately 1,500 daily departures, serving more than 158 cities in 24 countries in North America, Asia, and Europe; and with codeshare partners, 750 destinations in 120 countries and six continents.

Pilot bases: Anchorage, Detroit, Memphis, and Minneapolis/St. Paul

Hub cities: Amsterdam, Detroit, Memphis, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Tokyo 

Company headquarters: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Equipment: 450 airplanes (166 DC-9s, 78 A320s, 70 A319s, 72 B-757s, 23 B-747s, 22 DC-10s, 7 A330s, and 12 B-747 freighters)

Alliances: Northwest has a trans-Atlantic alliance with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and domestic and international alliances with Continental and Delta.

By Will Holman, ALPA Communications Specialist
Air Line Pilot, August 2004, p.22

Many formidable challenges present themselves to the Northwest pilot group as negotiations for a new contract take place with airline management. The dog days of August are especially difficult this year in the wake of many unfortunate events that are affecting the U.S. airline industry--an unstable economy, higher fuel prices, the war in Iraq, and the threat of terrorist attacks. The fear of SARS, pension-funding issues, and an unfriendly Bush administration have also contributed to the significant concessions that pilots have made at many other airlines, such as United, US Airways, and American. 

These negative influences have given airline managements powerful ammunition in current negotiations with labor. Fortunately, the Northwest pilot group has gained valuable experience facing formidable challenges in the past. This experience, combined with disciplined union leadership and skilled volunteers and staff, ensures that the best interests of all Northwest pilots will once again be defended. 

Airline managements today, like others before them, see a window of opportunity to lower labor costs. Some have already done so. Others, like Northwest management, are eager for the same result. The current state of the industry creates a difficult negotiating environment, but the Northwest pilot leaders have made clear that careful research and analysis of Northwest and the airline industry will determine the negotiating parameters.

A new chapter

The Northwest pilot group opened negotiations with management under Section 6 of the Railway Labor Act in July 2003. These negotiations were under way when Northwest pilots decided, as a result of a comprehensive examination and analysis of the airline's finances by both ALPA and outside financial experts, that a different course should be explored. This alternative course includes an investment proposal, which provides for $200 million per year in pilot cost savings for 2 years in exchange for stock, employee protections, and no-cost/low-cost contractual improvements. This is familiar territory for the pilot group. In fact, Northwest pilots previously negotiated a successful restructuring agreement in 1993. 

"We recognize that Northwest has some financial hurdles to clear, but we do not believe long-term concessionary agreements, like those negotiated by pilots at United and American, are necessary on our property," says the Northwest pilots' Master Executive Council chairman, Capt. Mark McClain. "Management needs to concentrate on what our company needs, not on what management wants." 

In the past, Northwest pilots have demonstrated that they will not be bullied into accepting an inadequate contract. Northwest pilots were forced to strike to protect their jobs and uphold the profession in 1969, 1972, 1975, 1978, and 1998. The actions of the pilot group during the 1998 strike sent to management a clear message, which had a positive effect during subsequent pilot contract negotiations at other airlines.

Volunteers critical

"The Northwest pilot group over the years has greatly benefited from a number of talented ALPA volunteers. This is still the case today," Capt. McClain says. "We realize that the current negotiating environment is not ideal, but the Northwest pilots have overcome similar challenges in the past and will do so again." 

If the investment agreement negotiations fail, Northwest pilots and management will resume traditional Section 6 negotiations. In preparation, Capt. Curt Kruse is serving as chairman of the Strategic Preparedness Committee. Over the past 6 months, Capt. Kruse has focused on further developing the negotiating support structure. This includes strengthening communications and implementing Pilot-to-Pilot and Family Awareness programs. Capt. Kruse believes that the Northwest pilot group must be ready for all possible scenarios. 

"We saw firsthand in 1998 what happens when management misjudges our pilot group," says Capt. Kruse. "We hope that the current management understands how costly such misjudgments can be and that they will negotiate in good faith for the mutual benefit of the pilots and the airline. If this does not happen, our pilot group is prepared to protect its own interests as it has done so many times in the past." 

Northwest Airlines: 
A Preeminent Global Carrier

Founded in 1926, Northwest began operations by using two rented open-cockpit biplanes to carry airmail from the Twin Cities to Chicago. Passenger service began the following year, and Northwest soon became an international airline as it started weekly Twin Cities-Winnipeg flights through Fargo. Northwest's global presence soared in 1947, as it began flights to Asia, serving Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai, and Manila. In 1986, Northwest acquired Republic Airlines for $884 million.

Northwest is the world's fifth largest airline and operates domestic and international route networks. Northwest's alliances and codeshare agreements help designate Northwest as a preeminent global carrier.

Whether the investment agreement negotiations continue or Section 6 negotiations resume, the Northwest pilot group stands strongly behind its elected leaders and the methodical negotiating approach those leaders use. This approach has produced several contract improvements over the past few years and has earned members' confidence. One notable success arrived in the form of a 1-year contract extension in June 2002. 

This extension not only gave Northwest pilots a 10.5 percent pay raise but also bought time for potential economic recovery. The contract extension proved that reasoned foresight, combined with a little luck, pays huge dividends. The 10.5 percent pay raise was the largest annual pilot pay raise negotiated at Northwest in at least the last 30 years.

A record of achievement

Besides the 1-year contract extension, some other recent accomplishments include providing furloughed pilots with medical/dental insurance coverage, persuading management to extend medical coverage and pass benefits to employee dependents serving with the military reserve, achieving an agreement to facilitate a Delta codeshare with protections that address concerns raised by such codesharing, and retaining a seat on the Northwest Airlines Board of Directors through 2009. 

These contractual improvements have given the 6,200 Northwest pilots confidence that their union is prepared to meet today's difficult challenges. First Officer Randy Orne, a furloughed DC-9 pilot, is among them. He has recently worked on a variety of ALPA projects. According to F/O Orne, this is the least he can do, considering that Northwest pilots have helped him and other furloughed pilots pay healthcare costs. 

"I really appreciate all the assistance my fellow pilots have given me and other furloughed pilots," says F/O Orne. "I'm proud to be a union member, and I thank my elected representatives and fellow pilots for doing everything possible to make our time on furlough less miserable." 

Although an improved economy and recent pension legislation have cleared some gray clouds, challenges still persist as management and the pilot group continue negotiations. Fortunately, experienced representatives, volunteers, and staff who possess a solid track record continue to serve the Northwest pilot group. Some volunteers have served the pilot group for many years while others are new to the scene. In both cases, one thing remains constant: these volunteers dedicate their time and do an exceptional job by acting in the best interests of all Northwest pilots. The Northwest MEC's mission to enhance and protect the interests of Northwest pilots has been successfully carried out in the past and continues to be carried out today.