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Northwest Pilot Shortage Forces Cancellations

December 17, 1989

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) _ A chronic pilot shortage has forced Northwest Airlines to cancel hundreds of flights in recent months and prompted the airline to temporarily cut back its pilot training.

But the carrier says its flight cancellations are back at ″normal″ levels and contends its record for the 12 months before October was consistent with that of other major airlines.

Some of the carrier’s pilots say postponing training could only aggravate the problem, according to a story in Sunday editions of the St. Paul Pioneer Press Dispatch.

″That’s the best that can be said about it,″ said Gerald Wallin, Northwest’s senior director of flight administration until mid-August. ″It’s like eating your seed corn.″

In October, Northwest canceled 707 flights for non-mechanical reasons - 1.8 percent of all flights. That’s the worst rate among the 13 major carriers, according to an internal U.S. Transportation Department report obtained by the newspaper.

Wallin and others called the number of halted flights extraordinary and said they believe cancellations at Northwest stemming from pilot shortages have at least doubled since early this year. The Transportation Department, which counts canceled flights, would not release historic data for comparison.

Other major carriers facing fast industry growth have had similar problems with flight cancellations. According to the Transportation Department figures, USAir cancelled 1.3 percent of its flights for non-mechanical reasons in October, followed by United, which cancelled 1.1 percent of its flights.

A statement from the suburban Eagan-based airline acknowledged that cancellations were higher than normal in late October and early November. However, it said its record for the 12 months ended Sept. 30 was ″consistent with the performance of all other major airlines.″

″It is unfair to judge Northwest’s flight schedule dependability based on only one month.″

The statement also said, ″Northwest has not at any time canceled required FAA training for its pilots.″

A spokesman for Northwest would not elaborate on the statement.

But Northwest employees past and present said the situation is troubling because the airline has scrapped many high-revenue international flights on large jetliners.

Moreover, the carrier’s new owners hope to build the airline by wooing new passengers with good service. Northwest Chairman Alfred Checchi intends to double the size of the airline in the next five years to help reduce $3.1 billion in debt from his group’s August takeover of the airline’s parent company, NWA Inc.

A group led by Checchi bought the nation’s fourth largest carrier for $5.65 billion. In September, Checchi became Northwest’s chairman when former chairman Steven Rothmeier and Rothmeier’s top four executives resigned.

Northwest’s problem with cancelled flights has been building over several years, according to pilots and former managers, and was exacerbated by top- level decisions during the years Rothmeier ran the carrier.

″Rothmeier’s group continually had a pilot shortage and they never hired enough pilots to meet demand,″ said Duane Woerth, a member of the Master Executive Council of the Northwest chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association union, which represents the carrier’s 5,400 pilots.

Woerth and others said Northwest is taking steps to remedy the problem. In mid-November, it halted all pilot-advancement training; the company said it is continuing to train newly hired pilots.

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