Judge rules Mesaba can reject contracts, impose terms Wednesday

Mesaba Saab turboprop aircraft
A Saab turboprop aircraft at MSP, part of the Mesaba fleet.
MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich

(AP) - A bankruptcy judge ruled on Monday that Mesaba Aviation Inc. can reject its union contracts with workers, a legal step toward a showdown that could result in a strike this week at the Northwest Airlines Corp. feeder.

Judge Gregory Kishel's ruling said Mesaba can impose terms at 12:01 a.m. on Wednesday, the day after he's scheduled to hear the airline's request for an injunction against a strike. That hearing is scheduled for 1:35 p.m.

Flight attendants
Mesaba flight attendants wearing CHAOS t-shirts, alluding to the possibility of a "CHAOS"-style partial/random strike if the company imposes contract terms.
MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich

Mesaba has said it will impose terms on its 1,140 pilots, mechanics and flight attendants if given the legal right to do so.

Unions have said they will strike rather than accept the proposed work rule changes and pay cuts. But both sides said after Kishel's decision that they would continue negotiating while the legal process plays out.

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Mesaba flies to nearly 100 cities in America and Canada, funneling passengers to Northwest's hubs in Minneapolis, Detroit and Memphis, Tenn. It's the only air carrier serving some of those cities.

The airline has said it wants 17.5 percent in labor savings from its unions.

This is the second time Kishel has given Mesaba permission to throw out its union contracts. Much of his first decision was upheld on a union appeal, and Kishel's ruling on Monday dealt with the parts that weren't.

The judge ruled the airline had bargained in good faith on snapbacks, or automatic restorations of cuts in the future. He also rejected a union argument that Mesaba parent MAIR Holdings Inc. would get an economic windfall through bankruptcy.

Mesaba pilots union chairman Tom Wychor
"We need a consensual agreement for the company to survive," said Mesaba pilots union chairman Tom Wychor.
MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich

Within minutes of Kishel's decision, the unions renewed their vow to strike if the airline imposes terms.

"We simply will not accept this injustice," Tim Evenson, a spokesman for the flight attendants union, said in a statement.

Tom Wychor, head of the pilots union, said employees don't fear liquidation.

"We need a consensual agreement for the company to survive," he said.

Mesaba has warned that its financial situation is deteriorating and it can't tap into $24 million in debt financing unless it reaches a deal with its unions.

At the same time, the airline's creditors are getting impatient and could push for liquidation in an attempt to recover some of their money.

Mesaba gets all of its planes, passengers and revenue from Northwest, and when Northwest filed for bankruptcy protection in September 2005, Mesaba followed about a month later.

Northwest has been pressuring Mesaba and its other regional feeder, Pinnacle Airlines, to cut costs. The feeder airlines fly under the Northwest Airlink name, funneling passengers into Northwest hubs.

Northwest Chief Executive Doug Steenland said last week that the airline has made preparations for getting Mesaba passengers to their destination if the airline's workers strike. On Monday, spokesman Roman Blahoski said Northwest wasn't ready yet to talk about those plans.

Whatever Northwest's plans are, they won't include their pilots flying for Mesaba. The Northwest pilots said last week they wouldn't perform struck work.

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)