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Northwest Plans Regional-Jet Unit

But a spokesman for the pilots' union says the company may be getting ahead of itself.
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Northwest Airlines


says it wants to move quickly to start up a new regional jet subsidiary that will fly 76-seat aircraft in the next year, but the carrier's pilots say the company may be getting a bit ahead of itself.

In a filing this week with the Transportation Department, Northwest said it wants the new unit, Compass Airlines, to begin flying in June with 50-seat aircraft and to begin building a fleet of 76-seaters over the next year.

Under the existing pilots' contract, Northwest isn't permitted to fly 76-seat aircraft. Voting on the tentative agreement that was reached this month, and which would allow the jets, is scheduled to start April 6 and run through May 3. Assuring that Northwest pilots would fly regional jets, rather than watching those jobs be contracted out to smaller carriers, has been a major issue for the pilots.

Still, "the airline is making plans ahead of schedule," said Wade Blaufuss, spokesman for the Northwest chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association. "I acknowledge that they wanted to take advantage of the market opportunity to buy the certificate at a reduced rate, which is a faster and cheaper way to do things, but I take issue with the fact that they don't qualify their statement that they will operate 76-seaters (by) recognizing that the

tentative agreement has to be passed by the Northwest pilots before they can do that."

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A Northwest spokesman declined to say what would happen to Compass if the tentative agreement isn't approved. Northwest bought the operating certificate of bankrupt

Flyi Inc.

this month. Flyi was the parent company of Independence Air, which shut down Jan. 5 after filing for bankruptcy protection in November.

DOT approval is required before Northwest can operate using the certificate. To keep the certificate active, the airline would have one year from final approval to begin operating, a DOT spokesman said.

Northwest, in its filing, requested expedited DOT approval and said it initially would make few changes. It would start flying with the same 50-seat aircraft-type used by Flyi and use that company's base at Washington's Dulles International Airport, even though Compass would eventually be intended to serve Northwest hubs in Minneapolis, Detroit and Memphis.

Additionally, Northwest would hire the five key Independence Air employees who worked closely with the Federal Aviation Administration flight-standards district office at Dulles. Northwest Chief Financial Officer Neal Cohen would be CEO of Compass.

Northwest also said it would begin daily flights between Dulles and Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in June. During the first full year of operation, it would begin adding 76-seat jets, with the tentative goal of operating 36 of them within five years. The planes would be flown by furloughed Northwest pilots and by newly hired pilots, the company said.