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updated 8/23/2005 12:42:38 PM ET 2005-08-23T16:42:38

As a junior mechanic with only 15 years' experience, Kevin Bowlby is among those who stand to lose the most if Northwest Airlines succeeds in forcing its striking aircraft mechanics to accept painful pay and job cuts.

"Most of the guys here have 20 years seniority," says 34-year-old Mr. Bowlby. "I'm one of the junior guys in the company and if they want [to cut] 53 percent of the workforce then I'm gone."

Faced with a choice between a painful strike and certain termination, Mr. Bowlby decided to take his chances, joining fellow workers on the picket line on Saturday in the first strike at a big U.S. airline in seven years.

Northwest is also involved in a bold gamble. Its willingness to risk severe disruptions and possible bankruptcy by attempting to fly through an Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) strike reflects the dramatic changes that have swept the airline industry since the onset of its most recent downturn in 2001.

High fuel costs and fierce competition from low-cost carriers have taken their toll on Northwest, which has warned that it could face bankruptcy unless it secures $1.1 billion in labor savings and quick action by Congress on pensions reform this year.

At the same time, the increasing trend in the airline industry toward outsourcing maintenance tasks and the large number of unemployed licensed mechanics on furlough from rival airlines have emboldened the airline to take bigger risks with replacement workers.

Most of Northwest's competitors already outsource heavy maintenance to outside contractors, and the trend toward outsourcing line maintenance is increasing.

"The conditions of our marketplace have changed both dramatically and permanently over the last four years," says Julie Hagen Showers, Northwest's vice-president of labor relations.

"In order to be able to change with the market place and remain competitive, we have to accomplish the successful labor cost restructuring. That's the primary goal."

In a departure from previous rounds of labor negotiations, Northwest staked out its position from the beginning. AMFA could either agree to Northwest's initial demands for $176 million in concessions or it could go on strike.

For AMFA, a small craft union with a history of fiery relations with management, that was a difficult adjustment.

"Because of the financial circumstances of the company and the dynamic environment externally, we told them very clearly from the beginning that these were not negotiations as usual," says Ms Showers. "But I think perhaps AMFA's experience in prior rounds suggested to them that we weren't necessarily being forthcoming."

OV Delle-Femine, AMFA's outspoken national director, says it is "unconscionable to think that new hires could come in and take the place of technicians with 15, 20, 35 years of experience."

But so far Northwest's gamble seems to be paying off. Flights continued at the weekend with minimal disruptions. AMFA's mechanics continue to hold out hope that a backlog of maintenance problems will lead to problems and force Northwest to the bargaining table.

"You can't train people on a 757 aircraft in four weeks," says Mr. Delle-Femine. "It's going to clam up on them eventually."

In the meantime, Mr. Bowlby says he will remain on the picket line. "Financially I'm already ruined, but I'm here to keep fighting as long as I can."

He says he may eventually consider a career change. "There were two different careers I always wanted this one and law enforcement. My dad was a state trooper, and I'm going back to the family business."

Steve Gross, a 45-year-old line mechanic who has been with Northwest for 25 years, says he has been setting aside money for more than a year in anticipation of a strike.

"I've been saving my money as best I can. It's hard with a family. My wife is a nurse so we're looking for her to go back into that full-time."

© The Financial Times Ltd 2013. "FT" and "Financial Times" are trademarks of the Financial Times.

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