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Northwest call center safe in event of merger

By Don Davis

ST. PAUL -- The only major Minnesota Northwest Airlines operation outside of the Twin Cities is safe if Northwest merges with Delta Airlines, the Minnesota Senate president said Monday.

Sen. James Metzen, DFL-South St. Paul, said he talked to Northwest President Doug Steenland and brought up the reservations facility in Chisholm.

"It will remain open no matter what happens," Metzen reported that Steenland said.

A letter from Northwest Vice President Richard Hirst indicated that the airline supports Minnesota jobs, but he called talk of a merger just "speculation."

Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, said the reservation center in his hometown employs 484 people.

"We are obviously nervous about what will happen if there is a merger," he said.

The state provided $9.7 million to construct the building, and all but $1 million has been forgiven because Northwest met its obligation of providing at least 300 jobs at the center. If jobs drop below 300, the airline would have to begin making lease payments to continue using the facility.

Statewide, Northwest employs 13,657 Minnesotans, Economic Development Commissioner Dan McElroy told the Senate Business, Industry and Jobs Committee. The economic impact Northwest has on the state is $300 million, about 1.3 percent of the state gross domestic product, he added.

McElroy said he feels more than 1,100 Northwest headquarters employees, who work in suburban Eagan, are most at risk of losing jobs if the airlines merge.

"Those 1,200 are gone," Metzen interjected.

Most employees work in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, and McElroy said the hub operations there probably are not at risk.

To bail out the airline from financial problems, the state loaned Northwest $315 million in 1992, and $245 million remains unpaid.

Tom Anderson, a lawyer for the Metropolitan Airports Commission, said if Northwest reduces its Minnesota presence, it would have to repay the loans faster than if employment remains static or rises.

In a statement given to Metzen's committee, U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar said even if a merged airline keeps all jobs in Minnesota, a merger would not be a good idea.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.