Acrimony between Northwest Airlines pilots and management may be to blame for hundreds of canceled flights in recent days, but analysts say the airline needs to resolve the situation quickly to avoid further damage to its reputation.
Eagan, Minn.-based Northwest, which emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection May 31, is citing a higher-than-normal rate of absentee calls as one of the key factors for recent flight delays.
The airline, Michigan’s largest passenger air carrier with a hub at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, disclosed Tuesday that it canceled 10.7 percent of it flights from Friday to Monday. When Northwest Airlink regional flights — operated by Mesaba and Pinnacle airlines — were added, total flight cancellations for the four-day period were 4.4 percent of the airline’s schedule.
Northwest had previously chalked up its pilot-crew shortage to air traffic control restrictions and severe weather earlier this month that caused increased pilot duty time and left planes and pilots out of position for flights. Northwest’s statement Tuesday acknowledged that a “higher than normal level of pilot absenteeism” contributed to the cancellations.
Northwest spokesman Darren Shannon would not comment Wednesday on how many pilots had called in sick or to update the cancellation figures. The Web site FlightStats.com, which tracks aviation data, said Northwest had canceled 829 flights between Friday and Tuesday. It said the airline had canceled more than 100 as of Wednesday afternoon.
The airline emerged from bankruptcy last month with renewed pledges to improve customer service.
Wade Blaufuss, a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association union, said Wednesday any uptick in pilots calling in sick was not part of an organized sick-out. He said Northwest slashed pilots’ wages by 40 percent while increasing their flying times to as much as 90 hours per month. The Federal Aviation Administration prohibits pilots from flying more than 100 hours per month.
That has pilots stressed out, he said.
“It’s not a safe situation to have tired, fatigued flight crews,” Blaufuss said. “It looks great on paper to have costs cut to the bone, but there are all these things like morale and fatigue that don’t show up on a balance sheet.”
In exiting bankruptcy, Northwest slashed debt by $4.2 billion, cut $400 million a year in the cost of its fleet and trimmed unprofitable routes. It also cut $1.4 billion a year in labor costs.
The airline has said it will use measures like profit-sharing to try to improve employee morale, but the pay of Chief Executive Doug Steenland, who was due to get $26.6 million in equity, continues to be a sore spot for some employees.
Mike Miller, an aviation analyst with The Velocity Group consulting firm, said competition in the industry, especially for lucrative business and international flights, means Northwest cannot afford to wait to resolve the situation.
“Northwest is not a startup airline,” Miller said. “They need to be handling this before it gets to be part of their reputation.
“If they were a startup, people may give them enough leeway. But this is pretty basic stuff, staffing enough people to run an airline.”
The glitches may already have turned off Leon Wilde. The former Spirit pilot and flight attendant saw his Northwest flight home from Detroit to Boston canceled Monday morning due to crew shortages. He volunteered to opt out of a second flight after it was overbooked.
Aboard a third flight later that afternoon, a flight attendant told passengers to sit wherever they could find a seat after the plane that arrived at the gate was different than what the airline had sold tickets for, he said.
“I will be avoiding them like the plague, at least until they get the maintenance and the pilots stuff straightened out,” Wilde said.