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More end-of-month flight woes for NWA

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Flight cancellations mounted over the weekend for Northwest Airlines. An NWA spokesman expected to fly 91 percent of the schedule Sunday.
MPR File Photo/Charlie Knutson

Northwest Airlines is again apologizing to passengers after canceling hundreds of weekend flights.  

The airline canceled 138 flights by Saturday afternoon. Eighty-four flights were already canceled by Sunday morning, and delays and cancellations continued to stack up throughout the day.

Spokesman Roman Blahoski says the airline expected to complete 91 percent of its Sunday flights.  He wouldn't speculate on how long the cancellations could continue. But he says the cause of the problem is clear. 

"It's pilot absenteeism," Blahoski said. "It's pilots not reporting for their assigned flights. We do take a look at the situation every morning and try to adjust as needed."

"Pilots are being pushed to fly up to their monthly legal limits well before the month is over, with not enough reserve staff to pick up the slack."

Blahoski says to minimize delays, the airline is recalling furloughed pilots. It also plans to hire around 250 new pilots over the coming year. The airline has cut back on flight schedules by 4 percent and put spare aircraft back into rotation.  

Officials say Northwest is doing everything possible to notify customers in advance when their flights are canceled. 

That message didn't get through to some passengers at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport Sunday afternoon. 

A woman who did not want to give her name arrived at the airport with her family extra early for a flight to Newark. She says they called to confirm their flight in the morning, and were told it was on time.

"We showed up early, because we tried to print our boarding passes last night and they wouldn't let us print," she said. "So we figured something was going on. My husband called and they said we were confirmed, the flight was OK, but that we needed to come in and do curbside check in to get our passes. So we came in now to do that, and it's canceled."

Agents told the family the earliest available flight out is Monday afternoon. As a result, she will miss work and her husband will be late for an important business trip. 

The situation is reminiscent of what happened in June. That's when Northwest canceled more than 1,000 flights at the end of the month, again blaming pilot absenteeism. 

Wade Blaufuss from the Northwest Airline Pilots Association dismisses the accusation that the delays are caused by pilot absenteeism. 

He says the airline simply doesn't have enough pilots on staff.

"The fact that this is happening again at the end of the month, this is also proof that this is not an arbitrary spike in absenteeism," Blaufuss says. "It's because pilots are being pushed to fly up to their monthly legal limits well before the month is over, with not enough reserve staff to pick up the slack."

As a result of Northwest's recent bankruptcy negotiations, the pilots union took a 40 percent pay cut and benefit reductions. Pilots also work more hours with no overtime and less reserve staff. 

A Northwest flight attendant with almost 18 years on the job, who wished to remain anonymous, says Northwest should've seen the pilot staffing issue coming.  

"They know it's the busiest season," she said. "It has been every single year. The pilots told them last year we're going to need more pilots, and they didn't hire them back."

She says she personally lost hundreds of dollars in pay because of this weekend's cancellations. Flight attendants get paid per flight with no guarantees. 

Northwest officials say they are in discussions with the pilots union about how to improve performance. 

They say they are confident that hiring more pilots will help ease delays and cancellations. But hiring and training won't happen overnight, so a permanent fix is likely months down the road.