Saturday, June 20, 2009

Farewell Northwest, Part I

The Hat Trick has been waxing nostalgic lately over something that is seemingly unimportant to the average person, yet it is an important moment in aviation history: the “departure” of Northwest Airlines.

As each day goes by, more of Northwest disappears as it is merged into Atlanta-based Delta Airlines following approval of a merger between the two airlines in October, 2008. The reasoning for the merger stemmed from aftershocks of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the economic downturn that followed, increased competition from Low Cost Carriers (LCCs) and, finally, the gas crisis. The justification for the merger was that to merge would ultimately save both companies. Both airlines had made a trip through Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings between 2005 and 2007 and were still financially shaky given the economic turmoil and high energy prices of recent years.

Delta argued that it was essential for economic survival yet the Hat Trick always is concerned about that argument because with the elimination of a major carrier, the monopolistic nature of airlines begins to take hold and in many cases the consumer suffers. The Hat Trick is aware that Northwest’s traditional hub cities (Detroit, Memphis and Minneapolis) are beginning to see the negative impact of Delta’s decisions which, in many cases, favor traditional Delta hub cities such as the super hub at Atlanta (ATL) plus Salt Lake City (SLC) and New York’s John F. Kennedy International (JFK)...anyone remember when JFK was New York International Airport, commonly referred to as Idlewild? This can be seen with the assignment of Northwest’s newer, and more popular, Airbus A-330 aircraft to former Delta trans-oceanic routes out of Atlanta and New York with Delta’s older and less popular Boeing 767-300s filling in out of Northwest cities, including routes from Portland, Oregon (PDX) to Tokyo (NRT) and Amsterdam (AMS) and the entire Detroit (DTW) to London-Heathrow (LHR) service, all previously served with the superior Airbus 330-200/300 aircraft.

Growing up in Detroit, and being an avid aviation enthusiast, the Hat Trick has always been aware of the history and impact the airline has had with the city, which includes some of the previous airlines that have merged into what is now Northwest Airlines. This blog entry will discuss the predecessor to the current Northwest Airlines, known as Northwest Orient. This entry will discuss the history of Northwest Orient up the merger with Republic Airlines in 1986 and the airline became known as Northwest Airlines, although in its corporate organization it had always been officially known as Northwest Airlines. Future posts will discuss the history of Republic Airlines, a company that was a very big part of what Northwest Airlines is today.


Northwest Airlines began operations as Northwest Airways in 1926 flying mail between Minneapolis, Minnesota and Chicago, Illinois. The company has always been headquartered in Minneapolis and has a very strong connection to the city. The movie Airport was filmed at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport in the late 1960s and you can see many “red tails” (Northwest’s planes are painted red and have been through most of its history) in the airport scenes of the film. The movie’s story, based on the book by Arthur Hailey, is set at a fictional Midwest airport (although modeled heavily after Chicago O’Hare International (ORD)) during a blizzard. Filming at MSP was supposed to assist with the feel of a snowy environment yet they had to bring in artificial snow until a real snowstorm produced more snow for filming.

Following World War II Northwest pioneered service between the United States and Asia when a Douglas DC-4 traveled from Minneapolis to Tokyo, Japan with multiple stops. With the expansion into Asia that remains to this day Northwest became known as Northwest Orient although officially the airline was still called Northwest Airlines. In 1949 Northwest Orient brought the Boeing 377 Stratrocruiser into its fleet and gained Fifth Freedom rights in 1952 (along with Pan American World Airways) to fly beyond Tokyo (NRT). In addition the fifth freedom rights allow Pan Am and Northwest Orient to pick up passengers in Tokyo. These rights exist today for both Northwest and United Airlines who bought Pan Am’s Pacific Division in 1985. As a result Tokyo is considered a hub for both airlines. A passenger traveling on Northwest from Detroit (DTW) to Singapore (SIN) can fly nonstop to Tokyo (NRT) and connect to another Northwest flight that continues on to (SIN).

In the early 1960’s Northwest Orient took deliveries of Boeing 707 and 720 aircraft for both international and domestic service. The company also obtained the Boeing 727-151 in the mid-1960s for domestic services. The early 1970s saw the arrival of wide body aircraft (larger aircraft with twin aisles) in the form of the Boeing 747 and McDonnell Douglas DC-10 that became a mainstay of Northwest’s fleet into the early 2000s. Northwest Orient also took delivery of larger Boeing 727-251 aircraft to supplement its domestic capacity. In 1985 Northwest Orient took deliver of the Boeing 757-200. By 1985, the company’s last year operating before merging with Republic Airlines, the airline had a fleet that included the Boeing 727 (100 and 200 series), Boeing 757 (delivered in 1985) and 747 (100 and 200 series) and the McDonnell Douglas DC-10-40. In addition to a heavy presence in Asia (hence the continued use of the “Orient” in the airline’s name) Northwest Orient had also expanded service to Europe with London (Gatwick), Frankfurt, Oslo, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Shannon and Dublin being served in 1985. Of those cities, only Frankfurt is currently served by Northwest Airlines as the London-Gatwick service has transferred to London Heathrow Airport.

An examination of the June 6, 1985 Northwest Orient timetable shows an interesting route structure that is very different from the Northwest route structure of 2009 with the exception of hub operations at Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport (MSP).

The timetable shows the Minneapolis hub in place but the route structure shows significantly less spokes compared with today. Also, in 1985 operations by regional airlines were just beginning and you can see in the timetable the first routes of Northwest Orient Airlink which was operated by Mesaba Airlines. Mesaba continues to be a Northwest Airlink carrier today and became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Northwest Airlines. Mesaba is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Delta Airlines as a result of the merger.

While MSP remained the main hub and corporate headquarters of the airline, Detroit could be considered a focus city of the airline. The June 6, 1985 timetable shows nonstop flights from DTW to the following cities:

From Detroit Metropolitan Airport (DTW):

Boston Logan (BOS) 4
Chicago O’Hare (ORD) 3
Cleveland Hopkins (CLE) 1
Grand Rapids, Michigan (GRR) 2
Los Angeles International (LAX) 2
Milwaukee-Mitchell Field (MKE) 4
Minneapolis/St. Paul (MSP) 5 (2 DC-10 trips)
New York – John F. Kennedy (JFK) 1
Newark International (EWR) 5 (1 DC-10 trip)
Philadelphia International (PHL) 4 (1 DC-10 trip)
Phoenix – Sky Harbor International (PHX) 1
Seattle/Tacoma International (SEA) 1
Tampa/St. Petersburg International (TPA) 2
Washington National Airport (DCA) 6

Total Nonstop Frequencies: 41

All Northwest Orient operations at DTW were conducted in Concourse A of the now closed L.C. Smith terminal. This concourse was circular and had nine gates at the time for Northwest Orient’s operations.

Focus Cities:

Northwest Orient also had operations, some sizable, in several other Midwestern cities and an international gateway on the East Coast at both Boston Logan International Airport (London-Gatwick (LGW), Shannon, Ireland (SNN)) and New York John F. Kennedy International (Tokyo, Japan-Narita Airport (NRT), Copenhagen, Denmark (CPH), Oslo, Norway (OSL), Glasgow, Scotland (GLA), Shannon, Ireland (SNN)).

The West Coast international gateways included Los Angeles International (LAX), San Francisco International (SFO) and Seattle-Tacoma International (SEA). Nonstop service to Tokyo (NRT) was available from LAX, SFO and SEA. Seoul, South Korea (ICN) was also served nonstop from both LAX and SEA. Interestingly the only route that the 747 currently flies to NRT from these three cities is LAX; SFO and SEA have been downgraded to the Airbus 330-200 and might be downgraded again to the Boeing 767 given Delta’s desire to make significant aircraft assignment changes. Nonstop service to NRT was also available from Honolulu, Hawaii (HNL) and the carrier also served Osaka, Japan (OSK) from HNL.

Domestically, in addition to Detroit, Chicago O’Hare (ORD) and Cleveland Hopkins (CLE) had service to many locations and ORD also had nonstop service to NRT daily. The June 6, 1985 timetable shows the following schedule.

From Chicago - O’Hare International (ORD):

Billings, Montana (BIL) 1
Boston Logan (BOS) 2
Cleveland Hopkins (CLE) 3
Detroit Metropolitan (DTW) 3
Madison-Dane Country (MSN) 2
Miami International (MIA) 2
Minneapolis/St. Paul (MSP) 9 (1 747 trip)
Rochester, Minnesota (RST) 1
Seattle/Tacoma International (SEA) 1 (1 DC-10 trip)
Seoul, South Korea (ICN) 1 (Fri., Sat., Sun. 747 service)
Tampa/St. Petersburg International (TPA) 2
Tokyo, Japan – Narita (NRT) 1 (Daily 747 service)
Washington National (DCA) 1

Total Nonstop Frequencies: 29

In addition to the above service Northwest Orient also served Chicago Midway Airport (MDW) with five nonstop flights to Minneapolis (MSP).

Comparing the above schedule with Northwest’s current operations out of ORD, you see a stark difference in the two. Currently Northwest only serves its three domestic hubs out of ORD: Detroit (DTW), Memphis (MEM), which became a hub city after the merger with Republic Airlines in 1986, and Minneapolis (MSP) with a combination of mainline and Northwest Jet Airlink (regional jets) operations. Of the mainline operations out of ORD, none are on wide body jets and the Tokyo flight was discontinued sometime in the mid to late 1990s.

In addition to ORD, Cleveland Hopkins International (CLE) also saw a good deal of service by Northwest Orient. At the time of the June 6, 1985 timetable, CLE was still a hub for United Airlines.

From Cleveland Hopkins International (CLE):

Boston Logan (BOS) 2
Chicago O’Hare (ORD) 3
Detroit Metropolitan (DTW) 1
Minneapolis/St. Paul (MSP) 3
Tampa/St. Petersburg International (TPA) 1
Washington National (DCA) 3

Total Nonstop Frequencies: 13

A comparison of this schedule with the airline’s current shows an even more drastic cut. The airline currently serves its three domestic hubs of Detroit (DTW), Memphis (MEM) and Minneapolis (MSP) but only with Northwest Airlink aircraft: mainline Northwest has completely pulled out of CLE. This is in stark comparison to the above schedule which was served with Boeing 727 aircraft and, at one time, DC-10 service was available on one trip per day.

In addition to the focus city services at ORD and CLE, the June 6, 1985 timetable also shows some other interesting routings:

• Nonstop service from Dallas/Ft. Worth International (DFW) to Minneapolis (MSP), Omaha, Nebraska (OMA) and San Francisco International (SFO).

The OMA and SFO service was operated once a day and the SFO trip, Northwest Orient #27, was operated by a Boeing 747 and continued to Tokyo (NRT).

• Minneapolis (MSP) did not have nonstop service to Tokyo (NRT); one-stop service was available on Northwest Orient #7 that stopped in Seattle (SEA) on its way to Tokyo (NRT). Flight Seven had a long itinerary and included the following stops:

City Pair/Aircraft:
Philadelphia (PHL) – Detroit (DTW) DC-10
Detroit (DTW) – Minneapolis (MSP) DC-10
Minneapolis (MSP) - Seattle (SEA) 747
Seattle (SEA) - Tokyo (NRT) 747
Tokyo (NRT) – Manila (MNL) 747 – Fridays
Tokyo (NRT) – Hong Kong (HKG) 747 – Wednesdays
Tokyo (NRT) – Osaka (KIX) 747 – Mondays
Osaka (KIK) – Okinawa (OKA) 747 – Mondays

That would be a long trip if you flew between Philadelphia (PHL) and Okinawa (OKA) on a Monday! You would depart PHL on a Sunday at 7:20 a.m. and five stops later (and two aircraft) arrive in OKA at 9:45 p.m. Monday night.

• The company had an interesting Florida operation. They operated one to two flights a day between Florida cities and the Midwest including ORD, MSP, DTW, CLE, MKE, and BOS. In addition they also had intrastate service to major Florida airport: For example the June 6, 1985 schedule out of Tampa International (TPA) shows the following intra-Florida flights:

From Tampa International (TPA):
Fort Myers (RSW) 2
Ft. Lauderdale (FLL) 2
Miami (MIA) 1 (DC-10)
Orlando (MCO) 2
West Palm Beach (PBI) 2

For the most part Southwest Airlines dominates these routes today.

• Northwest Orient also had an interesting presence in Montana. The June 6, 1985 timetable also shows quite a few intrastate flights within Montana that allowed the airline to connect these cities with MSP through a one-stop flight through Billings. In addition, Spokane, Washington (GEG) was connected to both Great Falls (GTF) and Missoula (MSO).

Northwest Orient Airlink:

In 1984 Northwest Orient joined other airlines in generating a marketing agreement with a commuter airline to brand same-airline service from smaller communities that would connect in with the major carrier’s network at various airports, usually their hub cities. US Air had first started this concept when they were Allegheny Airlines, naming their commuter network Allegheny Commuter. In the early to mid 1980s every major carrier copied this model and the traveling public began to see Delta Connection, United Express, Piedmont Commuter, Republic Express and others.

In the case of Northwest Orient they joined forces with Mesaba Airlines, a commuter airline (the term used now is “regional airline”) that offered service in Minnesota, Iowa, North and South Dakota using a fleet of Beechcraft 99 and Fokker 27 turboprop aircraft.

The routes generally focused on connecting cities in these states with MSP but did provide some intrastate service, particularly in South Dakota.

Detroit first saw Airlink service in 1986 when an agreement with Fischer Brothers Aviation out of Galion, Ohio was put together. Fischer Brothers was a small operation with nine planes (three Saab-Fairchild 340s, three Dornier 228s and three CASA 212s) and had formerly run as an Allegheny Commuter affiliate in the 1970s and 1980s. The Airlink service out of DTW added capacity to CLE, Flint, Michigan (FNT), Lansing, Michigan (LAN), Traverse City, Michigan (TVC) and one-stop service from DTW to Mansfield, Ohio via Cleveland (American Express Sky Guide, June 1986). In addition to the service at DTW, the Fischer Brothers Airlink flights also provided nonstop service between Detroit City Airport (DET) and Cleveland Burke Lakefront Airport (BKL), competing with a Delta Connection/Comair Saab-Fairchild 340 that served that same route.

Fischer Brothers Aviation continued as an Airlink affiliate when Northwest Orient and Republic Airlines merged in October 1986. The Hat Trick remembers having only one flight on a Fischer Brothers Airlink flight, a short hop between DTW and CLE in February, 1987 in a CASA 212 Aviocar turboprop…and remembers it to be a very bumpy ride due to high winter winds on approach to CLE!
Eventually the company was purchased by the first Midway Airlines that re-branded the company Midway Connection. Mesaba Airlines still serves as a major component of the Airlink network and is a wholly owned subsidiary of Northwest Airlines, now Delta.

The Hat Trick’s First Northwest Orient Flight:

The Hat Trick’s first Northwest Orient flight (that he has a memory of!) was in April 1985 between DTW and Newark International Airport (EWR). The equipment was a Boeing 727-200 and I was traveling with my father on a business trip to New York City…very exciting stuff for an awkward 13 year old with a love of flying! I don’t have the boarding passes or any other information so I’m going only on memory. However, I do remember that the flight left in the evening, probably after 8:00pm and we took an express bus from EWR to the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan before a cab to the Hilton New York on Sixth Avenue.

The return trip was on a McDonnell Douglas DC-10, my first ride in a Northwest Orient DC-10 (and my last before they merged with Republic Airlines and became Northwest). My second Northwest Orient trip was on July 20, 1985 aboard flight #256 between DTW and CLE. According to the boarding pass I sat in seat 12-F and departed from DTW’s Concourse A, Gate 9.

The Hat Trick's final Northwest Orient flight (before the merger)

was on November 7, 1985 and was also flight #256 to CLE, departing from the same Gate 9 and also a Boeing 727-200. On this trip I sat in seat 7-F. The return trip home on November 10, 1985 was on a Republic Airlines Boeing 727-200, flight #771, which continued on to Los Angeles International (LAX). Total roundtrip fare was $78.00. Currently the roundtrip airfare is around $250 for an advanced purchase fare.

Merger With Republic Airlines: End of an Era

Northwest Orient merged with Republic Airlines on October 1, 1986 ending many years of service under the Northwest Orient name. The merger also began a massive transformation for the airline into a new operational structure that, in some ways, would take the company away from its operational roots. In other ways, however, the company of today (pre-Delta merger) remains similar to that of Northwest Orient. This is seen most vividly in the Asian operations and especially with the Tokyo hub. Even some of the flight numbers used in the Northwest Orient days (Flight #1 LAX-NRT, Flight #27 SFO-NRT) is stilled used today.

Northwest Orient was an interesting airline and had an interesting domestic route structure that is so different from today’s airlines. However the airline’s Pacific route structure has many similarities including using Tokyo (NRT) as a hub to bring in passengers from key cities in the United States and then have them connect to other aircraft traveling to major Asian cities. Gone are the nonstops to Tokyo from Chicago, New York JFK that have been replaced by Detroit (DTW), Minneapolis (MSP) and Portland, Oregon (PDX). Other changes include the aircraft that the carrier flew: none of the original Boeing 727-100/200s, McDonnell Douglas DC-10s and Boeing 747-100/200s from the June 6, 1985 timetable is with the fleet as they have all been retired due to age. Only the Boeing 757-200 aircraft are still with the company and they are likely to be retired soon with the merger with Delta.

The airline that Delta now inherits is very different from the one that bore the name Northwest Orient but that name is from another time in the history of aviation, long gone but somewhat missed (at least by the Hat Trick) in the current environment.

Stayed tuned for future posts on both Republic Airlines and Northwest Airlines (1986-2009).


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