STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
Now for those of you who are trying to get back from vacation today, your timing may not be perfect because today is the last day of the month. And for Northwest Airlines, that means another day struggling with the end of the month cancellations. It's been a problem all summer.
Pilots hit their ceiling of 80 flying hours per month before the month is over. It's just one reason why Northwest cancelled more than 100 flights yesterday. And that is not a good sign for an airline that just emerged from bankruptcy a couple months ago.
Minnesota Public Radio's Annie Baxter reports.
ANNIE BAXTER: For thousands of Northwest customers, days like today, at the month's end, mean that it's time for a polite phone call from the airline.
W: This is Northwest Airlines with important information regarding a cancelled flight. The flight is cancelled due to operational needs. We apologize for the inconvenience.
BAXTER: For the most part, those operational needs mean pilot shortages. Northwest emerged from bankruptcy after slashing its union's pay and benefits to cut costs. Like many other airlines, the carrier is now dealing with a shortage of pilots as fewer want to continue working at much lower wages.
Twin City resident Tanya Hagerman(ph) is seeing how that plays out for travelers. She didn't get a warning call about flight cancellations. And on Monday afternoon, she had just arrived at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport after 18 hours in transit.
TANYA HAGERMAN: I was at Baltimore. And my first flight was leaving around nine o'clock. It got cancelled due to their pilot shortage. So I got bump to a six o'clock flight and that got cancelled due to the weather.
BAXTER: Hagerman got another flight, but then she got stuck overnight at the airport in Dallas. And on top of that, her bags were lost. Northwest says the cancellation problems are not occurring system-wide but mostly on narrow-bodied planes, which fly the most frequently. And the company says the cancellations are occurring because pilots just aren't showing up. That's what Northwest CEO Doug Steenland said recently in a recorded message to employees.
DOUG STEENLAND: We are experiencing an increase in flight cancellations due to crew shortages caused in large measure by a significant spike in narrow-bodied pilot absenteeism.
BAXTER: But Northwest pilots union spokesman Wade Blaufuss complains that the term pilot absenteeism seems to suggest a sickout, which is technically an illegal labor action that could get the union into a lot of trouble. Blaufuss says the real problem is that the airline is suffering a pilot shortage.
WADE BLAUFUSS: Absenteeism can cover anything. It can cover military leave, people who are out on long-term sick or on vacation. Absenteeism just means a pilot who isn't available to fly.
BAXTER: Though Blaufuss maintains pilots are not deliberately calling in sick, he does say exhaustion levels are running high. He says before Northwest's recent stint in bankruptcy, pilots were capped at 80 hours of flying time per month. And now that number has increased to 90 hours. While that might not sound like a lot, Blaufuss says for every five hours of flying, pilots actually work a total of about 12 hours. Some pilots complain that's like working two full-time jobs.
Blaufuss says as pilots have been asked to fly more frequently, they're burning out. And they're not even getting overtime pay. Northwest says it'll try to trim its flight schedule and hire more pilots.
Travel expert Terry Trippler says whatever changes the airline makes, it better make them fast.
TERRY TRIPPLER: They've just got to get it together. I mean, usually there's a honeymoon period after bankruptcy; if this is the honeymoon, I'd hate to see the seven-year itch. Good grief.
BAXTER: Trippler says travelers in Northwest's hub markets tend to stick with the airline because they're hooked on frequent flyer miles. But he says even that won't be enough to assure customer loyalty if Northwest keeps canceling its flights.
For NPR News, I'm Annie Baxter in St. Paul.
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