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Airline's proposals anger unions

MINNEAPOLIS -- For each of its big unions Northwest Airlines Corp. has a big idea, each one so odious to workers that they're threatening a strike that could put it out of business.

The bankrupt carrier is pressing to shift midsize jet flying and some baggage handling work to subsidiaries, angering pilots and ground workers. And it wants to shift thousands of US-based, union-covered flight attendant jobs to foreign hires.

The centerpiece is the idea for a new regional carrier, which Northwest has dubbed ''NewCo" for now. ''NewCo represents the cornerstone of our domestic renewal," said Tim Griffin, executive vice president for marketing and distribution, in a recent newsletter to employees. Northwest declined to provide anyone to discuss NewCo.

Northwest is trying to negotiate those changes into new contracts along with steep pay cuts and other givebacks by workers. If talks fail it will ask a US Bankruptcy Court judge to allow it to reject its union contracts and impose new terms. A trial on the issue is set to begin today in New York.

Northwest has said little about its plans for ground workers and flight attendants. But it laid out its regional airline subsidiary idea in the newsletter to employees, saying it hopes to launch the carrier next year with a fleet of new 70- to 100-seat jets. NewCo could have as many as 105 aircraft by 2010, and would fly under its own Federal Aviation Administration operating certificate.

Northwest's president and chief executive, Doug Steenland, said the jets are the perfect size for 20 percent of Northwest markets, which include more small cities than any other carrier.

Darryl Jenkins, who teaches airline management at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., said the cutoff between mainline and regional flying is second only to pay in importance to pilots.

Still, Northwest's plan to buy new airplanes tells pilots, '' 'We want to grow,' and that gives pilots an incentive to work it out," said Doug Abbey, airline consultant for the Velocity Group in Washington.

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