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Northwest's Anderson resigns as CEO, takes job at UnitedHealth

MINNEAPOLIS — New Northwest Airlines Corp. chief executive Doug Steenland promised Friday that the airline's strategy would remain constant when he succeeds Richard Anderson, who is leaving to work for UnitedHealth Group.

The airline will continue to seek nearly a billion dollars in labor concessions, push for a major expansion of the Minneapolis St. Paul-International Airport and add Midwestern routes, said Steenland, who previously was the airline's president.

The continuity shouldn't come as a surprise, he said, since he and Anderson had been working in a "collaborative, almost sort of a co-CEO operation over the last several years." Both men assumed the top two jobs in February 2001.

Anderson is leaving for a job across town with the nation's largest health insurer as an executive vice president with unspecified responsibilities starting Nov. 1. The move, which was announced Friday, fueled talk that he was being groomed to run the insurer — but a UnitedHealth spokesman denied that was the case.

In a conference call with reporters, Steenland said that Anderson's departure "was a matter that he had had under consideration for some period of time" but did not elaborate. Anderson will remain on Northwest's board.

"There is no precipitating event, other than Richard was presented with a very significant and attractive opportunity to work for a very large and rapidly growing company that's based here in Minneapolis," Steenland said.

In leaving Northwest, Steenland said Anderson is "not entitled to and will not receive any form of golden parachute and the like." Anderson made $2.4 million in total compensation at Northwest in 2003, versus $1.9 million for Steenland.

Like other airlines, Northwest has suffered massive losses in recent years — more than $2 billion since 2001 — along with higher fuel prices that Northwest hedged less than other airlines, and what it says are a need for labor concessions to stay competitive.

Still, some analysts said Northwest is in a better position than many of its hub-and-spoke competitors. It has $3 billion in cash, its markets are less susceptible to low-fare competition, and its extensive, lucrative Asia routes are hard for other carriers to match.

The airline is currently seeking $300 million in concessions from its pilots, who have offered $200 million.

Mark McClain, chairman of the Northwest branch of the Air Line Pilots Association, said Steenland will be the sixth or seventh chief executive he's worked for. Steenland joined Northwest in the early 1990s.

"I've worked with Doug for years," McClain said. "He was in the 1998 negotiations (which ended in a strike), for example, and so was I. We've established a professional relationship."

Jim Atkinson, president of the mechanics union local at Northwest, said Anderson did a poor job of communicating with workers, especially mechanics. He said he hoped Steenland would be better.