Updated from 2:09 a.m. EDT
, the nation's fourth-largest carrier, said Saturday that it has maintained operations by replacing about 4,400 striking employees with 1,500 temporary workers and outside vendors, according to published reports.
Workers represented by the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association went on strike early Saturday morning, as the union and the airline weren't able to reach a labor agreement both sides could accept.
Though Northwest reported no strike-related disruptions, the AMFA said the first U.S. airline strike since 2001 would eventually cause delays, according to
"We don't expect delays. The airline is running particularly well," Andy Roberts, Northwest executive vice president of operations, told reporters at Northwest headquarters in Minnesota. "We are operating on time."
During a conference call Saturday morning, company executives said that the licensed and trained technicians were improving service at the airline, the report said.
"Our operation is going to run extremely well over the next few weeks, and our customers should continue to travel and book with confidence," Roberts said.
O.V. Delle-Femine, AMFA's national director, said the walkout "will be difficult for our members and their families too, but Northwest left us no choice. Northwest wanted a strike, and now they have one," he said. "We apologize in advance to the flying public for the inconvenience and disruption the strike will cause.
Just after midnight EDT, a 30-day cooling-off period mandated by federal labor law expired, allowing the mechanics to strike and giving the airline the option to put replacement mechanics on the job.
"During the past 18 months, Northwest developed a comprehensive contingency plan that includes expanded vendor relationships to ensure that the airline continues to operate normally," Doug Steenland, the company's president and chief executive, said in a press release. "Northwest has experienced, licensed and trained mechanics in place to service all NWA aircraft."
Even as the deadline for the workers and Northwest to find common ground drew closer, a strike was appearing more and more likely. In the past, AMFA has said the airline didn't want to budge from its proposal to lay off 53% of the mechanics and cut the pay of those who remained by about one-quarter.
Northwest has said it needs concessions totaling $176 million a year from the mechanics as part of a bid to lower its annual labor costs by $1.1 billion. The company said the cost reductions are required if it's to stay out of bankruptcy.
The union has said it offered a deal, including pay cuts of around 16%, that would have saved the airline $140 million a year in labor costs, and later said it could save the amount Northwest was seeking while preserving more jobs.
The airline has said it had made its final offer Thursday to the mechanics, but it didn't provide any details.
Delle-Femine said in a statement that the "eight-month negotiating period has been an arrogant farce with a predetermined ending. The fact that Northwest began making strike preparations 18 months ago, a full year before our negotiation process started, proves that that talks were a farce."
Steenland said the carrier's final offer "was fair to our employees while recognizing the need for equitable labor costs savings from all labor groups so that Northwest could restructure successfully."
Northwest, based in Eagan, Minn., last had workers go on strike in 1998. The airline has hubs in Detroit, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Memphis, Tokyo and Amsterdam.