Tuesday, September 05, 2006

All dressed up with nowhere to go 

St. Cloud has sunk a good deal of money and effort into improvements of its airport. The possibility of an Air National Guard unit moving onto the airfield has sparked interest, and the city's business and government leaders have tried to drum up interest in a second airline moving to the commercial airport.

So this bit of news about Mesaba, the current commercial provider, is going to have them all quite nervous.

The standoff in contract negotiations between Mesaba Airlines and its labor unions has prompted labor leaders to call on Minnesota politicians for help.

Officials for the pilots, flight attendants and mechanics unions met recently with U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., Attorney General Mike Hatch, Gov. Tim Pawlenty's chief of staff, David Gaither, and Finance Commissioner Peggy Ingison.

"We are obviously very concerned about the direction Mesaba management is taking this company," said Tom Wychor, chairman of the pilots union. If Mesaba imposes steep cuts in pay and benefits on its employees, some could end up on the MinnesotaCare health care program or need other government help to survive, Wychor said.

If Mesaba and its unions cannot resolve their differences, Wychor said, the airline might liquidate. Mesaba spokeswoman Elizabeth Costello declined to comment on the union meetings with government leaders.

As its fleet shrinks, Mesaba has been laying off employees. Many other employees are resigning for new jobs.

During August, seven maintenance employees in the Twin Cities worked their last day for Mesaba or turned in their two-week notices of resignation, said Nathan Winch, a mechanics union leader.

Across the country, Mesaba pilots have been quitting at the rate of four or five per week. Union officials said 59 Mesaba pilots resigned over the past three months.
Major airlines can combine and survive the downturn in the airline industry (with increased costs from terrorism and fuel), but it's not at all clear whether there would be continued service in smaller communities if the airline-industry shakeout reaches the smaller firms. In this new era, is it cost-effective to operate airlines making the short hop from Minneapolis to St. Cloud? There was a firm that wanted to provide service to Chicago, but the idea was stillborn.