Negotiations to continue for Mesaba, employees

 - September 15, 2006, 4:39 AM

The judge overseeing the Chapter 11 bankruptcy case of Minneapolis-based Mesaba Airlines ruled last month that the airline may not unilaterally cancel the union contracts of its pilots, flight attendants and mechanics. Trumpeted by the unions as a major victory for labor, the 98-page ruling issued by Judge Gregory Kishel in St. Paul concluded that Mesaba did not satisfy all the conditions needed to compel the groups to agree to a 19.4-percent cut in payroll and related costs. However, the judge also commented that the employees needed to understand the dire financial condition Mesaba continues to confront. The unions all threatened to call a strike if the judge allowed Mesaba to reject the contracts.

At press time all the parties had expressed their intention to continue negotiations. Meanwhile, Mesaba weighed its option of filing a new petition. “While we’re disappointed in the delay, Judge Kishel states that if the unions do not recognize the dire financial condition of the company, Mesaba can re-file the motion and it will be heard promptly,” said Mesaba in a statement.

In his ruling, Judge Kishel noted Mesaba’s failure to provide proper financial models to the unions and another “technicality,” in Mesaba’s words, involving workforce attrition modeling. “These limited issues either already have been addressed or will be shortly,” said Mesaba.

Operating under bankruptcy protection since Northwest Airlines defaulted on a $36 million service contract payment in October, Mesaba has already terminated the leases on at least 13 of its original complement of 35 Avro RJs, grounded 14 of its once 63-strong fleet of Saab 340s and shed one of its pair of Bombardier CRJ200s, which Northwest plans to use to launch its new Compass Airlines regional subsidiary next month. Mesaba expects to shed the last of its four-engine Avros by November.

For an employee roster decimated by fleet cuts over the past eight months, the court victory came as a rare piece of good news. “I’m sure that every Mesaba pilot is breathing a sigh of relief over [the] announcement,” said Capt. Tom Wychor, chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) unit at Mesaba. “All along ALPA has said that the company does not need such drastic pay and benefit cuts, and today we have been vindicated.”

Meanwhile, the Association of Flight Attendants chimed in with a somewhat less cheerful and certainly more resentful note. “It is unfortunate that we had to go through this long and unproductive process,” said Association of Flight Attendants Master Council executive president Tim Evenson. “We have worked hard for what we have and are determined not to sit idly by and watch our company take away our livelihoods without a fight.”