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Northwest to recall pilots and cut schedule

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Cancellation
A Northwest Airlines departures board shows the story of the week; flight cancellations because of a shortage of pilots.
Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Northwest said it is taking several steps that it hopes will put an end the cancellations that have angered tens of thousands of customers. For several days running, the airline cancelled about 12 percent of its mainline flights. 

Some moves seem to be working already. Cancellations were way down on Friday. By mid-afternoon, Northwest had cancelled only about 3 percent of its flights. 

But the big move by Northwest is the planned recall of about 400 pilots now on furlough. The pilots' union has complained Northwest doesn't have enough pilots to fly its summer schedule. And now Northwest says it wants all remaining furloughed pilots to return to work as soon as possible. Northwest says it'll even hire new pilots, if necessary.

Pilot union spokesman Monty Montgomery says recalled pilots could be flying toward the end of next month.

"Furloughed pilots can get back in the air more quickly than new hires," Montgomery said. "Furloughed pilots can be back in the air in three weeks, I believe. But a new hire would take a couple of months to train, learn Northwest procedures and be ready to fly."

Northwest wouldn't say how quickly it could retrain all 400 furloughed pilots if they choose to rejoin Northwest.

The union says Northwest has been running out of pilots as they neared their monthly limit on flying. The pilots contract says they don't have to fly more than 90 hours. Federal rules, however, do allow passenger airline pilots to fly up to 100 hours in month.

Northwest is taking several other steps to increase its supply of pilots. The airline  is dropping a a Detroit-Frankfurt flight and trimming its domestic schedule slightly. And Northwest says that when it has to cancel a flight, the airline will try to give travelers one to three days notice.

Montgomery, of the pilots union, suspects Northwest has already found a way to rework pilots' schedules to cut cancellations.

"If the schedule is improving, I'm assuming that's what is happening," he said. "We hear from pilots that they are having portions of their trips cancelled,  which leaves them available to fly other flights in the future, before the end of the month."

Northwest has blamed the cancellations on bad weather, air traffic control restrictions, and pilots calling in sick. Northwest says it's seen an 80-percent jump in pilots calling in sick this month, compared with the the same month in 2006. But Northwest pilots say the airline simply doesn't have enough pilots to fly its summer schedule. And the union complains that Northwest's pilots are getting worn out, as they fly up to 90 hours a month.

Airline industry analyst Darryl Jenkins isn't surprised Northwest and the pilots didn't find a fast fix, letting the problem fester for a week or so. 

"Everything is always a negotiation," says Jenkins. "And the passenger gets totally screwed. It has always been this way. And I believe it has been this way because that's how both sides want it."

Northwest has earned the ire of many passengers in the past week. So will many of them abandon Northwest for future air travel?

"I would say, 'no,'" says   George Wozniak, owner of Hobbit Travel. "Most people buy on price, convenience and nonstop flights,and in the high-density times, you don't have a lot of choices. I think that people who are considering flying other airlines because of what's going on now will probably realize they don't have a lot of choices but to fly Northwest. I think from a booking standpoint, Northwest will be just fine."

In short, Wozniak doesn't expect Northwest to lose business because of the cancellations. Minnesotans are accustomed to living with Northwest and its labor woes, says Wozniak.

"It's always during the summer,"  said Wozniak. "Surprise. Surprise. High-density travel season, the busiest quarter of the year for airlines."

Northwest won't say how many passengers have been affected by the cancellations. And the airline won't reveal how successful it has been in rebooking passengers.