Northwest Airlines' pilots went on strike late Friday, grounding the airline and threatening to plunge air travel into chaos across the middle of the country. The White House said President Clinton would not intervene.
Contract talks between the airline and the Air Line Pilots Association had gone on for 10 intense days at a Minneapolis hotel, and a last-minute offer was rushed to the union's executive council before the strike deadline of 12:01 a.m. EDT Saturday.
Shortly before midnight, the union said the offer was rejected.
"With no agreement in place, I have instructed our strike committee to tell our pilots to withdraw all services immediately," said Steve Zoller, head of the council.
Pilots quickly began picketing at airports in Minneapolis and Detroit. The union represents 6,100 Northwest pilots.
The nation's sixth largest passenger airline, Northwest controls 75 percent to 82 percent of the airline seats at Minneapolis, Detroit and Memphis, Tenn.
Zoller and Northwest spokesman Jon Austin said their sides were ready to resume negotiations, but it was unclear when, or if, talks would resume.
"We're ready any time, any place, anywhere," Austin said.
Because Northwest announced earlier in the week it was canceling 400 flights on Friday and Saturday, its hub airports were calm on Friday.
Army Spc. Daniel Osborne, 21, of Royal Oak, Mich., was at the Detroit airport, trying to get information about his Sunday flight because he is scheduled to report back to an overseas base on Monday.
"Here I am, dancing on broken glass. I just want somebody to help me out," said Osborne.
Jeff Simon found himself stranded in Minneapolis while flying from Newark, N.J., to Seattle. He said he was scrubbing his trip and would try to fly back to Newark.
"They've got their reasons were striking, I'm just sorry I got caught in the middle of it," Simon said.
Expecting more stranded passengers, authorities at the Memphis airport had stockpiled 2,000 inflatable beds, 2,000 blankets and 2,000 pillows for waylaid travelers. They also set aside cases of baby diapers and formula. Northwest Airlines, meanwhile, reserved as many rooms as possible in hotels near the airport.
"The majority of the airport hotels are booked. We're holding those spaces open for stranded passengers," said Suzanne Boda, director of customer services for Northwest in Memphis.
Amtrak hooked two additional cars to its train between St. Paul, Minn., and Chicago to accommodate an extra 140 people. Tiny Kiwi International Air Lines said it would start two flights a day between Detroit and Newark, N.J.
The airline had 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. Northwest already halted its cargo service as of Thursday.
Clinton has the authority under the Railway Labor Act to order a 60-day "cooling off" period if he finds "a substantial economic threat" would deprive a region of a central transportation service.
Clinton spokesman Mike McCurry said: "At this time, the president has decided not to exercise his authority to intervene and he urges the parties to stay at the table, work hard and resolve their differences."
Union spokesman Paul Omodt had said earlier that tentative agreements had been reached on most contract issues, but not on two of the most contentious points: job security and compensation.
Northwest pilots say they earn an average salary of about $120,000 per year. The airline says the average salary is $133,000.
The airline held a news conference prior to the strike announcement and said it had proposed a "fair offer."
The pilots have been seeking a 15 percent raise over five years dating to Oct. 31, 1996, when their contract expired. Austin said the offer on the table would give Northwest pilots pay rates 4.5 percent higher than average rate earned by pilots at American, United and Delta by the year 2000, and 7 percent higher by end of contract in 2002.
Northwest, based in Eagan, Minn., also was offering lump sum payment to pilots of 3.5 percent of annual pay, totaling $57 million. Pilots had been seeking a stock and cash package that would be worth a total of $152.5 million.
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