Northwest looks to foreign flight attendants

/ Source: The Associated Press

Northwest Airlines wants to replace 30 percent of flight attendants on its international flights with non-U.S. flight attendants, roughly 800 people, to cut costs so that it can emerge from bankruptcy, a company executive testified in a New York bankruptcy court Thursday.

Northwest, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in September, seeks to save $1.4 billion in wage and benefit costs. Thursday was the seventh day of hearings devoted to the airline’s request to toss out collective bargaining agreements with the unions.

“Outsourcing would be a misnomer,” said Michael Becker, Northwest’s senior vice president of human resources and labor relations, in response to a cross-examination by Thomas Ciantra, attorney for the pilots union. Becker was referring to the carrier’s plans to replace U.S. flight attendants with foreign workers.

Becker also testified that the foreign flight attendants would not be part of the U.S.-based flight attendants union, the Professional Flight Attendants Association (PFAA). Becker said Northwest would save $20.2 million by hiring non-U.S. flight attendants.

Northwest employs 8,952 flight attendants. Company spokesman Bill Mellon later told the Associated Press that the non-U.S. flight attendants could, in theory, be represented by a trade group akin to a U.S. union.

The carrier had maintained that it needed to hire foreign workers as flight attendants because of their language and culture skills to better serve international flights such as one between Narita, Japan, and Honolulu where 90 percent to 95 percent of its passengers are Japanese nationals.

An official with the flight attendants union, meanwhile, questioned the carrier’s plans for its international flights.

“We (Northwest flight attendants) have been going across the Pacific for 70 years and offering excellent service,” Karen Schultz, spokeswoman for the PFAA, told the Associated Press after Becker’s testimony. “Our (plane) loads are full. We continue to have the highest loads because of excellent flight attendant service,which includes cultural sensitivity and language skills.”

Northwest, its pilots and flight attendants will return to the New York bankruptcy court on Friday to argue over the merits of the company’s request to abrogate collective bargaining agreements with its employees.