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Little improvement evident in Northwest's cancellation woes

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FlightStats, a  firm that tracks the performance of airlines, reports that Northwest has cancelled about 8 percent of its flights  on Monday. Northwest says FlightStats figures are typically too high. But Northwest wasn't saying how well it was doing on the cancellation front Monday, other than to say it hopes  cancellations will return to their normal rate of 1 to 2 percent.

In a message to employees last Friday, Northwest CEO Doug Steenland blamed the uptick in cancellations largely on pilots.

"We are experiencing an increase in flight cancellations due to crew shortages caused in large measure by a significant spike in narrow-body pilot absenteeism," he said.

A Northwest spokesman said on Sunday that pilots are not showing up for their assigned flights. 

The pilots'  union says Northwest simply doesn't have enough pilots to fly its busy summer schedule. Union officials blame the airline for waiting too long to recall laid-off pilots and hire new pilots.

Northwest pilots union chairman Monty Montgomery denies that pilots are conducting a "sick-out" to crimp the airline's operations.

"We as pilots feel like we're the ultimate investors in Northwest," he said. "Our careers that we've worked so hard to have and the futures of our family depend on Northwest. We don't have the big management bonuses that they were given recently to fall back on. If Northwest fails, my career is over and I have no income at all."

The pilots' contract requires them to fly up to 90 hours a month. Many have been running out of flying time as a month ends. Federal rules would allow them to fly up to 100 hours. But the union says few fly the additional hours. The union says that's because they're too exhausted to fly more.

A Northwest official says the airline is taking several steps to reduce cancellations, including hiring new pilots and adjusting the airline's schedule. But they say the fix will take time.

The airline hopes the month-end cancellations will be way down in August.

Wall Street hopes so. Analyst Ray Neidl says investors don't like what's happening at Northwest.

"Since the pilot job actions have started, the stock price of Northwest has been under pressure,"  Neidl said.   "During the quarter, cancellations of this magnitude will cost them revenue.  And it is a concern when labor-management discord reaches this level."

Northwest's stock is down 23 percent since the month-end cancellations started in June. Neidl said the airline risks long-term damage if the cancellations continue and Wall Street comes to believe Northwest pilots are out to seriously hurt the airline.

"This would only be temporary if they resolve it," said Neidl. "Long-term the concern is:  the pilots don't get it. It's a very competitive environment out there. And if you start doing too much damage to your employer, it will hurt you in the long term."

Many travelers are also increasingly unhappy with Northwest. John Rwamihigo  is among them. Earlier this month, Northwest cancelled Rwamihigo's flight  from Memphis to Buffalo on short notice. The flight left at about 7 a.m. Rwamihgo got the cancellation notice at 3 in the morning, while he was sleeping. He ended up getting to Buffalo a day late, on US Airways. And he was stranded in Charlotte, North Carolina. Even so, Rwamihgo  says he'll avoid Northwest when he can.

"I'm looking into changing my travel habits," he said. "I don't mind paying more or looking for flight earlier. But I'll fly with a company other than NWA."

Rwamihigo says Northwest indicated to him that it will pay him for the cost of one night in  hotel. 

But the U.S. Department of Transportation says airlines don't have to do much for you if they cancel your flight. Federal regulations only require an airline   try to put passengers on another flight, or refund their money.

Airlines may choose to do more for their customers, though. Northwest says it's providing some compensation for passengers whose flights are cancelled. But the airline won't detail what it's providing to customers.