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Northwest cuts flight cancellations way back

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Northwest planes are lined up at their gates.
Northwest planes are lined up at their gates at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
Craig Lassig/AFP/Getty Images

Towards the end of June and July, Northwest had some days when it cancelled up to 16 percent of its flights. That's according to FlightStats, a firm that tracks airline performance. Northwest has charged FlightStats counts were high. But the airline admits it cancelled about 12 percent of its flights some days.     So far this week, though, Northwest hasn't had a day in which it cancelled more than one percent of its flights, In fact, Northwest reports it had two days during which not a single flight was cancelled. 

Jeff Skaret of Minnetonka is among the travelers glad to see that Northwest has apparently ended its end-of-month spikes in flight cancellations.

"I've had flights that have been hours delayed because of cancellations," he says. "I had one flight that actually got me home at 2:30 in the morning. And I was supposed to get home at 10:30 the previous evening."

Skaret says it's important for Northwest to keep flight cancellations at their normal rate of one to two percent a day. 

"Northwest has us a little bit by the throat here," he says. "We don't have a lot of other flying options because they control so many gates . So, it's very important they resolve it because there just aren't enough options out of Minneapolis as I would like to see."

Earlier this month, Northwest Airlines and the pilots' union  reached an agreement aimed at ending the spikes in flight cancellations.

For the month of August, the recent changes that  Northwest has implemented are working.

The deal provides time-and-a-half pay if a pilot flies more than 80 hours in a  month. The agreement also provided some incentives for flight instructors, with the goal of speeding up Northwest's ability to add pilots. Northwest also enacted a plan to reward all employees for improved attendance.

Northwest spokesman Roman Blahoski says the moves have paid off.

"For the month of August, the recent changes that  Northwest has implemented are working," he says. "And the airline does not foresee any issues related to its flight operations as the end of the month approaches."

Industry analysts are at least somewhat optimistic that Northwest has ended the cancellation spikes.

"So, it looks like they've done it," says Minneapolis-based travel expert Terry Trippler. "Looks like they made it. In August. Does that mean in September they will? Don't know."

Trippler says the pilot pay hikes and relaxed work rules were critical to reducing flight cancellations, at least for now.

"There is no incentive like money," he says.  "And they've adjusted the work rules for these pilots.  That was one of the main things why the pilots were fatigued and tired.  They were gone for so long to get their hours. So, they adjusted some of those work rules and made it a lot easier."

Northwest also trimmed its domestic schedule, helping the airline stretch its supply of pilots. And one Wall Street analyst notes pilots don't seem to be calling in sick as often as they did toward the end of June and July.  Northwest says a jump in pilots calling in sick also contributed to flight cancellations.

The pilots union says pilots who called in sick were truly sick, exhausted from tough flying schedules.

Meanwhile, the pilots union isn't ready to declare Northwest has resolved the flight cancellation issue. Union spokesman Monty Montgomery says a permanent fix depends on Northwest carrying out its plan to hire hundreds of pilots--and getting enough of them ready to fly before the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday travel rushes.

"We're still understaffed for pilots," says Montgomery. "We do not have enough pilots. As we get to the increased holiday season flying, we're hoping they have more pilots hired and ready to fly at that time. Or I think we will have problems again."

Northwest has said it plans to hire 250 to 350 new pilots in the next year or so -- in addition to the nearly 400 furloughed pilots it has recalled. More than 14-hundred pilots have applied for jobs at Northwest Airlines since the company began a hiring push in late July.