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TBT In Aviation History: Remembering Northwest Airlines

Northwest Airways was founded in 1926 in Detroit, Michigan. Their main focus was to transport mail and established a route between Minneapolis and Chicago. During this early part of Northwest’s history, the airline focused on expanding to smaller cities in the Midwest, with a route to Calgary becoming the airlines first international destination in 1928.

In 1933 the airline acquired the rights to fly from New York to Seattle. With these new rights the airline moved its base from Detroit to Minneapolis and reformed with the name Northwest Airlines. In 1941 the airline became a publicly traded company. Before the onset of World War Two, the airline began to test flying an artic route through Anchorage to reach Japan. Because of this, the airline painted their tails bright red for better identification in the harsh wintry conditions, and the US military gave Northwest the designation as the main airline for north Pacific flying during the war.

With a transpacific network established, NWA changed its name to Northwest Orient Airlines. During this time the airline expanded it fleet looking towards the Boeing 720 and 707 to operate the transpacific network. In 1970 the airline introduced the Queen of the Skies, the Boeing 747. This helped to enable nonstop transpacific service and helped Northwest carry more passengers. The airline also developed a large presence in Japan and helped Japan Airlines start up by leasing crewmembers and aircraft.

While this was happening on the international market, domestically, Northwest focused on the northern United States, specifically Minneapolis, Detroit and Seattle. In 1986 the airline merged with fellow Minneapolis resident Republic Airways, which at the time was the largest airline merger in the United States history. After the merger, two big changes came to Northwest; the word “Orient” was dropped from the title; and the airline developed a three-hub system similar to Republic’s.

In 1989 the airline was bought by a group of owners, including KLM. The merger and the Gulf War troubles facing the industry lead NWA to near bankruptcy. The airline was saved when the employees agreed to a wage cut over three years. By 1993 the strategic partnership with KLM airlines flourished into the largest airline partnership at the time. With this partnership Northwest was able to lessen their focus on smaller European cities and focused on domestic and Pacific destinations.

The late 90’s provided profits and new technology for NWA. Self check-in kiosks began popping up in 1997 and NWA became the first airline to allow Internet check-in starting in 2000. However the mid-2000 were not as kind to Northwest. Increasing labor costs and increasing competition from low-cost carriers lead to Northwest declaring Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2005. Oddly, four of the six major US airlines at the time were also under bankruptcy protection (Delta, United, US Airways). After 20 months of uncertainty and numerous attempts to slash costs, the airline emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy in early 2007.

One year later the beginning of the end for NWA, when a merger with Delta Airlines was announced to create the world’s largest airline. The Delta name would remain, as the NWA title would fade into history. On January 31st, 2010 the merger was completed and all Northwest branded flights would be rebranded as Delta. The last flight, NWA 248, landed in Amsterdam at 5:33am EST on January 31st.

Northwest Airlines ended life on a rather positive note compared to other defunct airlines. The airplanes were still able to fly, the employees still had jobs, and the main hubs Northwest called home remained hubs. Looking back on the long history of NWA it is clear to see how the airline rose to power, dominating the trans-pacific market, and creating a strong northern domestic market.

Daniel Morley
Daniel Morley
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