Pending pilot strike makes Aspen anxious

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Local resort officials are holding their breath, with Mesaba Airline pilots scheduled to go on strike tonight at 10 p.m., Aspen time.

The airline operates Northwest Airlink connections to Aspen from Minneapolis/St. Paul and Memphis for Northwest Airlines.

Already, one flight into Aspen today and one departing on Saturday have been canceled, in anticipation that the pilots will walk.

The final flight from Minneapolis today, which would arrive at 10:20 p.m. and depart Aspen tomorrow morning, has been canceled, according to Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen Snowmass, a local reservations agency.

Northwest was working Thursday to notify affected passengers of the cancellation and trying either to accommodate them on an earlier flight today or fly them to the Eagle County Airport and then shuttle them to Aspen in vans.

Three flights from Minneapolis and one from Memphis are scheduled to land at Aspen’s Sardy Field tomorrow, according to Tomcich.

Sunday’s schedule calls for three flights from Minneapolis; two flights daily link Aspen and Minneapolis on weekdays during the month of January.

“Obviously, my hope is they’re going to avert a strike at the eleventh hour,” said Tomcich, who also works as the resort’s liaison with the airline industry.

If all of tomorrow’s Northwest Airlink flights are canceled, about 500 travelers flying in and out of Aspen will be forced to make other arrangements.

“It’s a Saturday, so those flights are pretty full in both directions,” Tomcich said.

The Mesaba jets seat 69 passengers.

A substantial amount of connecting service into Northwest’s hubs of Minneapolis, Memphis and Detroit would also be disrupted by a pilot walkout, according to Tomcich.

Northwest Airlines serves both DIA and the Eagle County Airport and those flights should be unaffected. Northwest’s contingency plans, in the event of a strike, call for rebooking Aspen-bound passengers on United Express from Denver or on America West from Phoenix. Or, passengers may fly into Denver, Eagle or Hayden near Steamboat Springs and then arrange their own ground transportation to Aspen.

Outbound passengers who book a flight out of Denver will have to arrange ground transportation to DIA if they can’t get a seat on a United Express flight to Denver.

In the event of a strike, affected passengers are advised to call Northwest Airlines at 1-800-225-2525 before heading to the airport.

Mesaba Airlines is the fifth-largest regional airline in the United States. Its pilots have been negotiating with the airline for 927 days, or more than 2 1/2 years, according to their Web site. A 30-day “cooling off” period in the talks expires today at 11:01 p.m. in Minneapolis; or 10:01 in Aspen, and the pilots have said they will strike if they don’t have a new contract in place by then.

According to the pilots’ Web site, Mesaba pilots start at about $17,000 a year and almost half of the airline’s 844 pilots earn less than $32,500 annually.

Mesaba contends it must keep its labor costs flat to compete for future flying contracts with Northwest, according to a USA Today report.

[Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is]