Northwest Airlines mechanic George Monzo says he wasn't ready to quit, but with a possible strike looming, he decided it was time to retire.
"I'm not old enough to retire, but I'm scared I'll lose my medical (insurance benefits) ... if I stay longer," said Monzo, 61. "And I hope they don't take them away later."
And Monzo isn't the only Northwest mechanic faced with making such a decision. Twenty of his co-workers at the Northwest hub in Memphis are expected to retire this month. A dozen others retired last month.
The Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association has 82 members in Memphis and the next expected retirements would cut the local rolls by nearly 25 percent.
Northwest and its mechanics remained at an impasse on contract negotiations Thursday. A mandated cooling-off period for the company and the union ends at 12:01 a.m. EDT Saturday, and the mechanics could then walk off the job.
Terry Lowry, president of the union's Local 38, described the replacement workers Northwest would put on the job as "kids right out of school, people who've been laid off or people the airlines wouldn't hire."
Union negotiators and representatives for Northwest, which is based in Eagan, Minn., have been meeting in Washington, D.C., since Monday.
Larry Cox, president of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority, said he expects any picketing set off by a strike to be orderly.
"There will be no demonstrations or mass gatherings," Cox said. "We're going into this with the anticipation that Northwest plans to fly and operate normally."
Inspectors with the Federal Aviation Administration will check on the work of replacement mechanics if a strike is called.
"We have already deployed inspectors to supplement the more than 50 we have for Northwest in Minneapolis," said FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory. "And we have backups for the backups. It gets into the thousands of people potentially available if we need them."
It was unclear if a mechanics' strike would lead to a supporting walkout by flight attendants.
"If the flight attendants either collectively or individually engage in some activity, it's going to be much more difficult to operate the airline," said John Fossum, professor of industrial relations for the University of Minnesota.