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Pilots strike looms

People flying in and out of Fargo's Hector International Airport won't have too many problems getting a seat if pilots for Mesaba Airlines go on strike tonight, but several smaller North Dakota and Minnesota cities will be without air service or ...

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People flying in and out of Fargo's Hector International Airport won't have too many problems getting a seat if pilots for Mesaba Airlines go on strike tonight, but several smaller North Dakota and Minnesota cities will be without air service or see it severely curtailed.

Devils Lake and Jamestown, N.D., and Thief River Falls, Minn., will have no air passenger service if Mesaba is grounded by a strike.

Richard King, manager of the Jamestown Regional Airport, has scrambled to find alternatives, either through Northwest Airlines or another carrier, but to no avail.

"We're hoping against hope is the best way I can put it," King said.

Now, he's waiting with his "fingers and toes crossed," hoping a strike is averted before the 11:01 p.m. deadline.

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Both sides were still talking Thursday evening, said Mesaba spokesman Dave Jackson.

"They're still going, they're going to go into the evening for sure tonight. Both sides are working hard to get a deal done," Jackson said.

Jamestown has sunk $700,000 into its airport, improving the terminal and buying a fire truck, King said. Losing the city's two flights to Minneapolis could sour travelers on the airport, he said.

"We put a lot of work into seeing Mesaba get here. To see it being thrown away like that is really disappointing," King said.

In addition to Thief River Falls, several other Minnesota cities will be without air service if there is a strike, including Bemidji, Brainerd, International Falls, St. Cloud, Grand Rapids and Hibbing.

Grand Forks (N.D.) Regional Airport will lose five of eight flights to Minneapolis if there is a strike -- about 200 passenger seats a day.

Fargo and Bismarck will see smaller effects. Both would lose two Mesaba flights daily Monday through Friday.

Fargo has six other daily flights to the Twin Cities during the work week that are handled by Northwest jets or another partner, Pinnacle Airlines, airport Executive Director Shawn Dobberstein said. United Express also flies to Chicago and Denver from Fargo.

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"I think we should be in pretty good shape," Dobberstein said. "If it comes to be, it won't have too significant an impact on us. But at the same time, it's never good to lose service or frequency of service out of smaller cities like Fargo."

Bismarck will lose two flights, or about 10 percent of it's 737 seats on Twin Cities-bound aircraft, said airport Manager Greg Haug. Northwest operates five jets to and from Bismarck daily. The capital is also served by United Express and Big Sky Airlines.

Wages top issue

Mesaba's pilot contract talks have dragged on for 2½ years. Wages are the main sticking point.

Mesaba pilots earn 15 to 20 percent less than other regional carrier pilots, the Air Line Pilots Association says. Mesaba pilots earn between $17,000 and $85,000 a year, with about 65 percent falling into the $30,000 to $57,000 range, the union says.

At the same time, Mesaba is under the gun to keep labor costs flat.

Northwest pays Mesaba to fly to cities in 30 states and Canada as a Northwest Airlink regional carrier. The bigger airline also controls Mesaba's access to many of its planes.

Jackson said Mesaba must be in a position after a contract is struck to be the low bidder for Northwest routes. But Mesaba won't try to fly without its pilots.

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"We like the pilots we have. We want to fly the aircraft with those pilots," Jackson said. "The goal is to avert a strike. If that's not possible, the next is to minimize a strike. ... We need to be delivering on our promises with Northwest. We need to be back up in the air as soon as we can."

Dobberstein and Grand Forks Airport Director Steve Johnson said they were told by Northwest that other larger planes out of the Twin Cities can take up the lost passenger seats.

However, the pilots unions for Northwest and Pinnacle recently announced they won't fly larger-capacity planes or extra routes to cover for lost Mesaba flights.

Gary Ness, executive director of North Dakota Aeronautics Commission, said the state has "run into a brick wall" in finding alternatives because pilots' contracts also won't allow other airlines to quickly step in to take over lost service.

"We've turned about every rock we can," Ness said. "I guess we've got to wait for 11:05 on the 9th."

Minot (N.D.) Airport has no Mesaba flights. Northwest jets supply three daily flights to and from the Twin Cities.

Minot could gain from a long-term strike if passengers travel from Devils Lake, airport manager Mike Ryan said. But, he quickly added, that wouldn't be good for North Dakota.

"Long term, it's not good for the state. ... On a statewide basis it will dramatically hurt us," Ryan said.

Losing passengers is foremost in the mind of Devils Lake Municipal Airport manager Kenny Koehn.

Devils Lake has two flights daily to and from Minneapolis that started in September. The routes boosted boardings well above last year's levels, he said.

"It hit us at a bad time," Koehn said.

King is also worried Jamestown will lose passengers to Fargo or Bismarck.

"It's definitely going to sit in the back of their (air travelers') minds next time they have to choose" when it comes to air travel, he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583

Helmut Schmidt is a reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead's business news team. Readers can reach him by email at hschmidt@forumcomm.com, or by calling (701) 241-5583.
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