MINNEAPOLIS -- At the round-the-clock strike coordination headquarters for Northwest Airlines pilots, a sign on Dean Smith's bulletin board read: "My jet will be parked 8/29/98."
But talks continued today, and Smith remained optimistic Thursday that a settlement would be reached before Friday's strike deadline.
"We don't want to go on strike. Everybody's unified on it," said Smith, a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association, as he coached one pilot who asked how he should respond to questions about the 2-year-old contract negotiations.
Northwest and its pilots were negotiating issues of pay, job security, retirement and work rules. Both sides are under a self-imposed news blackout on the talks, and both report progress but will say little else.
"We're still hopeful we can reach an agreement," airline spokeswoman Marta Laughlin said Thursday.
Under the Railway Labor Act, the president, acting on the recommendation of the National Mediation Board, can avert a strike with a 60-day cooling-off period if he finds a "substantial" threat to deprive a region of a "central transportation service." President Clinton intervened last year in a strike at American Airlines, but Northwest doesn't serve as many major hubs as American does.
Deputy press secretary Barry Toiv said this morning, "The best course of action for both parties is to stay at the negotiation table." Asked if he meant that to signal the White House might intervene to keep parties at the table, Toiv said, "Not at all."
Northwest canceled 400 flights scheduled for today and Saturday that were to have carried 25,000 passengers.
With weeks of warning about the possible strike, travelers made other arrangements, and some of Northwest's hubs were eerily quiet Thursday.
The airline, based in Eagan, Minn., is the nation's sixth-largest, carrying 54.6 million passengers a year.
Northwest flight attendants and machinists planned a rally this afternoon to show support, but the airline asked for a temporary restraining order, saying the rally-goers would be trespassing, the Star Tribune reported. A court hearing was set to consider the request.
Northwest has said a strike and the corresponding shutdown of its Airlink regional feeder service would eliminate 2,640 daily departures at 223 airports in the United States and abroad, leaving nearly 672,000 passengers without alternative air service during the first 10 days.
As the strike deadline of Saturday at 12:01 a.m. EDT approached, the pilots association had 24-hour strike centers operating in suburban Minneapolis; Detroit; Memphis, Tenn.; Seattle; Anchorage, Alaska; and Honolulu.
More than three dozen pilots were busy in the Minneapolis strike center Thursday, taking calls from pilots saying where they would be at the time of the strike deadline. The ALPA expects to know the exact location of each of the 6,119 pilots and will help stranded ones find lodging and a way to get home.
In radio, TV and newspaper ads, Northwest claims a proposed contract is generous enough. In their own ads, pilots contend they're not getting their due share of four years' worth of the company's record profits.
Northwest countered by saying it has offered top pilots more than $240,000 a year and noted that its pilots received more than 14 million shares of Northwest stock in exchange for concessions that kept the carrier out of bankruptcy in 1993.