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Legal limbo leaves uncertainties over strike strategy

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Flight attendants
Northwest flight attendants are threatening sporadic work actions, dubbed CHAOS. There's little agreement over how much harm such actions would cause the airline.
MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich

Over the past few weeks, Northwest has seemed to talk in contradictions about the potential damage a flight attendants strike could incur.

The bankrupt carrier has said in statements that it can weather a strike with a contingency plan it's developing and that passengers should continue to book Northwest with confidence.

[A] labor disruption that affects a few additional flights might not be that big of a deal to your average business traveller

But at the same time, the airline is telling U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero that a walk-out could cripple its operations and send it into liquidation.

The union's assertions about a strike's gravity carry similar ambiguities.  On the one hand, union spokesman Rick Thornton says job actions would cause limited hassle for Northwest flyers and for the transportation industry more generally.  That's because the union's strike approach, dubbed CHAOS, would likely only be used sporadically on flights.

"What we do, generally speaking, doesn't interfere with interstate commerce," Thornton says. "In all fairness we could do an across the board walkout, we could strike 24 hours, but generally speaking that's not how CHAOS is utilized."

On the other hand, the union can't downplay a strike's effects too much without undermining the force behind a strike threat.  And indeed, the flight attendants have repeatedly asserted that a CHAOS strike would be powerful because of its unpredictability, which, they hope, would leave Northwest guessing about when a strike might occur.

So Northwest and the union have have painted a picture of a strike as potentially harmful AND harmless.  Some travel experts are taking a similar view.

Carlson Wagonlit Travel Services, one of the country's largest travel agents, has told customers to continue booking Northwest.  Mike Koetting, an executive vice president with the company, says travelers probably don't have much to worry about with the kind of job actions the flight attendants have threatened.  He says the work stoppages would likely be about on par with normal travel delays, which business flyers have come to expect.

"The fact is that airlines cancel 10 percent of their flights due to weather issues or mechanical issues," Koetting says. "So a labor disruption that affects a few additional flights might not be that big of a deal to your average business traveller."

Still, Koetting is concerned that if job actions did damage Northwest enough to force its liquidation, the region would suffer a blow.

"I just don't think Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Twin Cities, this region really understands the benefit that a hub airline provides and the impact that it would have if Northwest Airlines were not to survive," he says. "I'd be surprised if another airline were to make Minneapolis/St. Paul a hub."

Whether or not a strike would have such dire consequences is beside the point for other experts.  Bankruptcy law Professor Douglas Baird of the University of Chicago says avoiding a strike will not provide any guarantees for Northwest's success. 

"The fundamental problem is that Northwest is an airline that's going to have to find its future, but it's going to have to find its future in the marketplace," Baird says. "And it's going to have to find a future in which they've got workers who are willing to come and work on a set of terms of conditions that are acceptable them and still allows Northwest to make a profit.  One of the things everyone has to recognize is that we don't know whether or not such a deal could exist."  

The time for testing Northwest's future in the marketplace could still be a long ways off.   Both the company and the flight attendants have pledged they will appeal any decision on by Judge Morrero if it does not serve their needs.