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Northwest Airlines, Inc.

Northwest Airlines, Inc.

Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport
St. Paul, Minnesota 55111
U.S.A.
(612) 726-2111
Fax: (612) 726-3942

Wholly owned subsidiary of NWA, Inc.
Incorporated: April 16, 1934
Employees: 47,000

Northwest claims to be the second oldest commercial air carrier in the United States. Like the other original airline companies established during the 1920s, its first business was hauling mail under contract to the U.S. postal service. Over the years Northwest established itself as the United States northern regional air carrier, serving New York, Seattle and Anchorage. Northwests expanded services to Asia inspired a new but unofficial name, Northwest Orient, which appears on its jetliners today.

After passage of the Kelly Airmail bill in 1926 the Ford Transport Company, a subsidiary of the auto manufacturer, was later awarded the Chicago to St. Paul airmail route. They commenced business on June 7 of that year, but a series of airplane crashes over the summer forced Ford to sell the company to Northwest Airways by October. Northwest ran Fords open-cockpit, single-engine biplanes until the winter weather compelled them to cease operations. In the spring of 1927 Northwest resumed business. By July the company was hauling passengers on their short trunk routes. Once again, however, the harsh northern winter obliged them to close for the season.

During the flying seasons of 1928 to 1933 Northwest secured an expansion of routes through the Dakotas and Montana, and eventually to Seattle, Washington. The man largely responsible for the companys westward growth was Croil Hunter. While only occupying a position in middle management, it was Hunters initiative to enter new markets and win new airmail routes that gave Northwest its early pre-eminence. By 1933 Hunter was vice president and general manager of the airline.

In the years before World War II Northwest directed its expansion eastward to New York. The company survived the governments temporary suspension of airmail contracts in 1934 with virtually no loss in business, and began operating mail services and passenger routes along the northern corridor. Moreover, new and modified airplanes enabled Northwest to continue operations through the winter. The planes were modified further when it became obvious that finding light-colored, downed planes in the snow was a difficult task. The tailfins of all the companys planes have since been painted a bright, contrasting red. In 1937 Croil Hunter, who had been credited with the airlines success, was named president of the company.

In the attempt to establish northern routes to Asia, Northwest pilots made expeditions to Alaska and across the Aleutian Islands. The northern route had been passed up by Pan Am, which was unable to win landing rights in the Soviet maritime provinces and Japan. Instead, Pan Am decided to open a route to the Philippines and China, via Hawaii and Guam. Pan Am crossed the ocean first, but Northwest held the promise of a faster route.

When the Americans became involved in World War II in 1941, Northwest was chosen to operate the military support routes to the strategically important Aleutian Islands. The airlines experience with cold weather aviation and its predominance in the region made it a logical choice. The Army Air Corps flew its C-46s, C-47s, B-25 and B-26 bombers directly from the production line to Northwest facilities in Minneapolis, Minnesota and Vandalia, Ohio in order for them to be modified for cold weather and long distance routes. Northwests expertise in this area contributed significantly to the effectiveness of the Allied war effort.

During the war passenger flights were strictly limited to people with priority status. Regardless of the suspension of commercial business, however, Northwest benefitted from the war. With a healthy military allowance from the War Department, Northwest improved its facilities and upgraded its technology.

When the war ended Northwest lobbied the Civil Aeronautics Board to award the airline rights to fly to the Orient from Alaska. This so-called great circle route was actually about two thousand miles shorter than Pan Ams transpacific route. When congress rejected airline magnate Juan Trippes proposal to make Pan Am Americas international flag carrier, the Civil Aeronautics Board was free to certify Northwest for great circle routes to the Orient.

With the governments reaffirmation of competition within the industry, all the companies hurried to modernize their airline fleets. It was both a matter of cost efficiency and prestige. Northwest looked to the Martin Company, with its new 202 airliner, to replace the aging DC-3 model, and complement the companys fleet of Boeing 377 Strato-cruisers. The Stratocruiser, with its lower level bar and intimate honeymoon suites was extremely popular with newly weds and business travelers. The Martin 202, however, did not remain in service for very long; its reputation for malfunctioning became widespread. Fortunately, the 202 was quickly replaced with the new DC-4.

When the Korean War started in 1950, Northwest employed many of its DC-4s to assist the United Nations forces. They ferried men and transported equipment, including bomber engines and surgical supplies, to various points in Japan and Korea. The military utilization of the airline, which lasted for several years, was carried out without any interruption of its regular commercial services.

In 1952 Hunter relinquished the presidency to Harold R. Harris, but retained his position as chairman of the board. After two uneventful years Harris was replaced by Donald Nyrop. After he received his law degree, Nyrop served in the military transport group during World War II. Later, he headed the Civil Aeronautics Board. For many years after joining Northwest he set an austere tone for the organization. For example, the Minneapolis headquarters was located in a large windowless building that he planned would become a maintenance hangar at some point in the future. Nyrop also had a chart showing the inverse relationship between the number of vice presidents and profits. Needless to say, Northwest had a minimal number of vice presidents.

On the other hand, Nyrop brought Northwest into the jet age quickly, purchasing the Lockheed L-188 prop-jet Electra, the DC-8, and Boeing 707 and 727. Through the early 1960s Northwest consolidated its service across the northern United States and along the great circle to its Asian destinations. Profits were consistent and growth remained slow and cautious.

Perhaps the one outstanding event of the period occurred on Thanksgiving Eve of 1971. A man who identified himself as Dan Cooper boarded a Northwest 727 in Portland, Oregon bound for Seattle, Washington. He claimed to have a bomb and demanded $200,000 and two parachutes. His demands were met and the airplane departed. Somewhere over southwestern Washington, at about 25,000 feet, Cooper ordered the airplanes rear bottom door opened. He walked down the stairs and jumped into the densely clouded, cold and black night. Cooper and most of the money were never found. He was, however, rumored to have died in a New York hospital in 1982.

In 1978, after 24 years in charge, Donald Nyrop retired. He was replaced by Joseph M. Lapensky, an accountant who was promoted from within the company. Many industry analysts expected Lapensky to continue Nyrops management policy. In fact, Lapensky must be regarded as an interim figure, one who represented a definite but subtle change in direction for the company.

Lapensky inherited the leadership on the eve of deregulation. For many of the large airlines the new era of competition resulted in the loss of large amounts of revenue. Northwest, however, was quite firmly established in its various markets, and remained for the most part unchallenged. Lapenskys most important problem, however, was the ruptured state of labor relations which resulted from his predecessors attempts to weaken the unions. In one instance, when Northwest employees threatened to strike, Nyrop decided to confront the unions. He enlisted the help of a 15-airline mutual aid fund established to enable the companies to withstand the effects of a long-term strike. When Nyrop realized the effort was stalemated, he gave in to union demands. Nyrops union problem became Lapenskys union problem, and before long Lapensky retired.

In October of 1983 Steven G. Rothmeier became Northwests new president. Rothmeier gained Lapenskys favor after writing a paper on a deregulated airline market as a student at the University of Chicago. Rothmeiers case study of Northwest so impressed people at the airline that they offered him a job in 1983. Like Lapensky, he rose through the company, albeit quickly, to the top executive position. Under new management the airline formed a holding company, Northwest Airlines, Inc., which assumed responsibility for the airline and its subsidiaries. On January 1, 1985 Rothmeier was named chief executive officer confirming his position as the leader of Northwest.

In 1985 United Airlines proposed to buy the Asian and Pacific routes of Northwests competitor Pan Am. Rothmeier led the opposition to the sale, arguing that it would leave only two airlines competing in Asia. Northwest invested many years of negotiation and costly waiting to achieve and maintain its Pacific markets. According to Rothmeier, it was hardly fair that United could simply purchase a competitive share. Regardless of the opposition, the sale of Pan Ams Asian routes to United was approved in 1986.

Northwest, which had suffered from not having a computerized reservations system, purchased a large share of TWAs Pars system, which the two companies jointly operate. The company has also made arrangements with four smaller independent airlines to generate more feeder traffic to Northwest.

In 1986 Northwest purchased its regional competitor Republic airlines. The $884 million sale barely won federal approval since the two airlines operated many of the same routes. At first the Civil Aeronautics Board was concerned that Northwest would operate monopolies in too many markets. Republic had established hubs in Detroit and Memphis, in addition to Minneapolis. However, Republics north-south route structure provides the ideal feeder for Northwests longer-haul east-west structure, despite a certain amount of overlap. In the end, the merger was approved. As a result of this merger, John F. Horn was named president of Northwest and NWA, Inc. Rothmeier, still chief executive officer, assumed the position of chairman, vacant since Lapenskys retirement in May of 1985.

Prior to the merger, Republic flew to over 100 cities in 34 states, Canada and the Caribbean. Northwests network covered 74 cities in 27 states and 16 countries in Western Europe, the Far East and the Caribbean. Until the purchase of Republic Airlines, Northwest had always been under leveraged, or virtually free of debt. Northwests management used to be proud of this fact, but came to recognize that, for tax and other purposes, it is good to carry some debt.

In 1989 financiers Alfred Checchi and Gary Wilson bought control of Northwest in a $3.65 billion leveraged buyout deal, upon which the airline became a private company. One year later, they named former Beatrice chief executive Frederick Rentschler as Northwests new CEO. One of the first tasks facing the new management was rectifying the service record of the airline, whose poor service and on-time performance record in recent years led dissatisfied business travelers to give it the unfortunate nickname Northworst. Flushed with optimism over the companys future, Checchi and Wilson embarked on a program of acquiring the assets of other airlines and committed $450 million through the year 1995 to improving service. They purchased Eastern Airlines Washington, D.C. hub, bought Asian routes from Hawaiian Airlines, and made well-known their desire to deal furtherat various times, they began negotiations to buy all or major portions of the airlines Continental, Midway, and Qantas.

However, the airline was soon struck by business and image setbacks. Two 1990 incidentsthe conviction of Northwest pilots for flying under the influence of alcohol and a runway collision of two Northwest jets, killing eight, which was later blamed on crew errortarnished the airlines public reputation further. The airlines hopes to expand through acquisitions proved hampered by its $4.2 billion debt, the product of the leveraged buyout coupled with debt extant from the purchase of Republic; the debt figure left the airline in 1992 with a negative net worth. Moreover, Northwest was hit by the general financial troubles that affected the industry in the late 1980s, including rising fuel costs, declining traffic caused by a weakening economy, and pricing wars. In 1990 and 1991, when these problems were exacerbated by recession and war in the Middle East, Northwest lost $618 million. As leading airline United began aggressive expansion into the Pacific market, Northwests inability to match its purchases left it vulnerable in its traditionally strongest area.

Management has attempted a number of plans to raise operating funds, including pursuing incentive funds from the state of Minnesota, in which the airline is based; in 1991, the company received $835 million in aid from the state for opening two maintenance bases there. The company also embarked on an aggressive cost-cutting campaign, cutting service by a third at its Washington, D.C. hub and seeking concessions from its unions, although many of its workers already receive wages below the industry average.

In another movewhich could lead the way for other airlinesNorthwest, together with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, applied to the United States Transportation Department in 1992 to merge the operations of the two companies and function as one. Since the United States had recently signed a treaty with the Netherlands allowing companies a good deal of leeway, the Transportation Department was expected to approve the combination and grant the carriers immunity from antitrust laws. This would allow Northwest and KLM to coordinate prices, available seats, sales forces, and data, while sharing revenues. An added bonus was the injection of KLMs equity stake in the company.

Although Northwest appears, for now, to have escaped the catastrophic effects of recession and deregulation that felled such competitors as Eastern and Pan Am, its massive debt leaves it at a disadvantage at a time when other airlines are employing a strategy of buying routes and expanding globally. Checchi and Wilson have been praised in the industry for their creative debt-cutting measures, however, and their expenditures to improve the airlines service record have borne some fruit; in 1991 the airline finished first in on-time performance, a category in which it had been the worst in recent years. Nonetheless, Northwest will need to continue its financial progressand convince customers of its service improvementsin order to have the resources to compete with leading airlines in the future.

Principal Subsidiaries

Northwest Airlines, Inc.; Montana Enterprises, Inc.; Affiliated Enterprises, Inc.; Compass 315, Ltd.

Further Reading

Davies, R. E. G., Airlines of the U.S. since 1914, Putnam, 1972; Jackson, Robert, The Sky Their Frontier: The Story of the Worlds Pioneer Airplanes and Routes, 1920-1940, Airlife, Ltd., 1983; Laibich, Kenneth, Winners in the Air Wars, Fortune, May 11, 1987; Kelly, Kevin, A Midcourse Correction for Northwest, Business Week, July 13, 1992.

John Simley

updated by James Poniewozik

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"Northwest Airlines, Inc.." International Directory of Company Histories. . Encyclopedia.com. 15 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Northwest Airlines, Inc.

Northwest Airlines, Inc.

Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport
St. Paul, Minnesota 55111
U.S.A.
(612) 726-2111

Wholly-owned subsidiary of NWA, Inc.
Incorporated: April 16, 1934
Employees: 30,000
Sales: $4.517 billion
Market value: $1.807 billion
Stock Index: New York

Northwest claims to be the second oldest commercial air carrier in the United States. Like the other original airline companies established during the 1920s, its first business was hauling mail under contract to the U.S. postal service. Over the years Northwest established itself as the United States northern regional air carrier, serving New York, Seattle and Anchorage. Northwests expanded services to Asia inspired a new but unofficial name, Northwest Orient, which appears on its jetliners today.

After passage of the Kelly Airmail bill in 1926 the Ford Transport Company, a subsidiary of the auto manufacturer, was later awarded the Chicago to St. Paul airmail route. They commenced business on June 7 of that year, but a series of airplane crashes over the summer forced Ford to sell the company to Northwest Airways by October. Northwest ran Fords open-cockpit single-engine biplanes until the winter weather compelled them to cease operations. In the spring of 1927 Northwest resumed business. By July the company was hauling passengers on their short trunk routes. Once again, however, the harsh northern winter obliged them to close for the season.

During the flying seasons of 1928 to 1933 Northwest secured an expansion of routes through the Dakotas and Montana, and eventually to Seattle, Washington. The man largely responsible for the companys westward growth was Croil Hunter. While only occupying a position in middle management, it was Hunters initiative to enter new markets and win new airmail routes that gave Northwest its early pre-eminence. By 1933 Hunter was vice-president and general manager of the airline.

In the years before World War II Northwest directed its expansion eastward to New York. The company survived the governments temporary suspension of airmail contracts in 1934 with virtually no loss in business, and began operating mail services and passenger routes along the northern corridor. Moreover, new and modified airplanes enabled Northwest to continue operations through the winter. In 1937 Croil Hunter, who had been credited with the airlines success, was named president of the company.

In the attempt to establish northern routes to Asia, Northwest pilots made expeditions to Alaska and across the Aleutian Islands. The northern route had been passed up by Pan Am, which was unable to win landing rights in the Soviet maritime provinces and Japan. Instead, Pan Am decided to open a route to the Philippines and China, via Hawaii and Guam. Pan Am crossed the ocean first, but Northwest held the promise of a faster route.

When the Americans became involved in World War II in 1941, Northwest was chosen to operate the military support routes to the strategically important Aleutian Islands. The airlines experience with cold weather aviation and its predominance in the region made it a logical choice. The Army Air Corps flew its C-46s, C-47s, B-25 and B-26 bombers directly from the production line to Northwest facilities in Minneapolis, Minnesota and Vandalia, Ohio in order for them to be modified for cold weather and long distance routes. Northwests expertise in this area contributed significantly to the effectiveness of the Allied war effort.

During the war passenger flights were strictly limited to people with priority status. Regardless of the suspension of commercial business, however, Northwest benefited from the war. With a healthy military allowance from the War Department, Northwest improved its facilities and upgraded its technology.

When the war ended Northwest lobbied the Civil Aeronautics Board to award the airline rights to fly to the Orient from Alaska. This so-called great circle route was actually about two thousand miles shorter than Pan Ams transpacific route. When congress rejected airline magnate Juan Trippes proposal to make Pan Am Americas international flag carrier, the Civil Aeronautics Board was free to certify Northwest for great circle routes to the Orient.

With the governments reaffirmation of competition within the industry, all the companies hurried to modernize their airline fleets. It was both a matter of cost efficiency and prestige. Northwest looked to the Martin Company, with its new 202 airliner, to replace the aging DC-3 model, and complement the companys fleet of Boeing 377 Stratocruisers. The Stratocruiser, with its lower level bar and intimate honeymoon suites was extremely popular with newly weds and business travelers. The Martin 202, however, did not remain in service for very long; its reputation for malfunctioning became widespread. Fortunately, the 202 was quickly replaced with the new DC-4.

When the Korean War started in 1950, Northwest employed many of its DC-4s to assist the United Nations forces. They ferried men and transported equipment, including bomber engines and surgical supplies, to various points in Japan and Korea. The military utilization of the airline, which lasted for several years, was carried out without any interruption of its regular commercial services.

In 1952 Hunter relinquished the presidency to Harold R. Harris, but retained his position as chairman of the board. After two uneventful years Harris was replaced by Donald Nyrop. After he received his law degree, Nyrop served in the military transport group during World War II. Later, he headed the Civil Aeronautics Board. For many years after joining Northwest he set an austere tone for the organization. For example, the Minneapolis headquarters was located in a large windowless building that he planned would become a maintenance hangar at some point in the future. Nyrop also had a chart showing the inverse relationship between the number of vice presidents and profits. Needless to say, Northwest had a minimal number of vice presidents.

On the other hand, Nyrop brought Northwest into the jet age quickly, purchasing the Lockheed L-188 prop-jet Electra, the DC-8, and Boeing 707 and 727. Through the early 1960s Northwest consolidated its service across the northern United States and along the great circle to its Asian destinations. Profits were consistent and growth remained slow and cautious.

Perhaps the one outstanding event of the period occurred on Thanksgiving Eve of 1971. A man who identified himself as Dan Cooper boarded a Northwest 727 in Portland, Oregon bound for Seattle, Washington. He claimed to have a bomb and demanded $200,000 and two parachutes. His demands were met and the airplane departed. Somewhere over southwestern Washington, at about 25,000 feet, Cooper ordered the airplanes rear bottom door opened. He walked down the stairs and jumped into the densely clouded, cold and black night. Cooper and most of the money were never found. He was, however, rumored to have died in a New York hospital in 1982.

In 1978, after 24 years in charge, Donald Nyrop retired. He was replaced by Joseph M. Lapensky, an accountant who was promoted from within the company. Many industry analysts expected Lapensky to continue Nyrops management policy. In fact, Lapensky must be regarded an interim figure; one who represented a definite but subtle change in direction for the company.

Lapensky inherited the leadership on the eve of deregulation. For many of the large airlines the new era of competition resulted in the loss of large amounts of revenue. Northwest, however, was quite firmly established in its various markets, and remained for the most part unchallenged. Lapenskys most important problem, however, was the ruptured state of labor relations which resulted from his predecessors attempts to weaken the unions. In one instance, when Northwest employees threatened to strike, Nyrop decided to confront the unions. He enlisted the help of a 15 airline mutual aid fund established to enable the companies to withstand the effects of a longterm strike. When Nyrop realized the effort was stalemated, he gave in to union demands. Nyrops union problem became Lapenskys union problem, and before long Lapensky retired.

In October of 1983 Steven G. Rothmeier became Northwests new president. Rothmeier gained Lapenskys favor after writing a paper on a deregulated airline market as a student at the University of Chicago. Rothmeiers case study of Northwest so impressed people at the airline that they offered him a job in 1983. Like Lapensky, he rose through the company, albeit quickly, to the top executive position. Under new management the airline formed a holding company, Northwest Airlines, Inc., which assumed responsibility for the airline and its subsidiaries. On Janaury 1, 1985 Rothmeier was named chief executive officer confirming his position as the leader of Northwest.

In 1985 United Airlines proposed to buy the Asian and Pacific routes of Northwests competitor Pan Am. Rothmeier led the opposition to the sale, arguing that it would leave only two airlines competing in Asia. Northwest invested many years of negotiation and costly waiting to achieve and maintain its Pacific markets. According to Rothmeier, it was hardly fair that United could simply purchase a competitive share. Regardless of the opposition, the sale of Pan Ams Asian routes to United was approved in 1986.

Until recently Northwest suffered from not having a computerized reservations system. As a result, Northwest purchased a large share of TWAs Pars system, which the two companies jointly operate. The company has also made arrangements with four smaller independent airlines to generate more feeder traffic to Northwest.

In 1986 Northwest purchased its regional competitor Republic airlines. The $884 million sale barely won federal approval since the two airlines operated many of the same routes. At first the Civil Aeronautics Board was concerned that Northwest would operate monopolies in too many markets. Republic had established hubs in Detroit and Memphis, in addition to Minneapolis. However, Republics north-south route structure provides the ideal feeder for Northwests longer-haul east-west structure, despite a certain amount of overlap. In the end, the merger was approved. As a result of this merger, John F. Horn was named president of Northwest and NWA, Inc. Rothmeier, still chief executive officer, assumed the position of chairman, vacant since Lapenskys retirement in May of 1985.

Northwest and Republic operate approximately 290 airplanes, including Boeing 727s, 747s and 757s, A320s, DC-9s, DC-10s and MD-80s. The two companies employ about 30,000 people each, but this number, like the number of jetliners, is expected to decline as the merger is fully implemented. Prior to the merger, Republic flew to over 100 cities in 34 states, Canada and the Caribbean. Northwests network covered 74 cities in 27 states and 16 countries in Western Europe, the Far East and the Caribbean. The new Northwest is the third largest American airline in terms of route miles.

Until the purchase of Republic Airlines, Northwest had always been underleveraged, or virtually free of debt. Northwests management used to be proud of this fact, but today recognizes that, for tax and other purposes, it is good to carry some debt. In this respect Northwest and Delta are very similar. They are both underleveraged and very sensitive to new developments in the airline market. Unlike Delta, however, Northwests employees are thoroughly unionized and generally paid less than at other airlines.

To deal with the more rigid costs and unstable market conditions created by deregulation, Northwests parent company operates a number of diversified subsidiaries. NWA owns Sun Country Airlines, a charter operator, Mainline Travel, a nationwide vacation packager, and NWA Aircraft, a retailer of used airplanes.

Aside from the diversification and the decision to finance operations through debt, another legacy of Rothmeiers tenure has been a more corporate style of leadership, emphasizing the role of the board and the primacy of effective marketing. His success with the airline can be attributed to his strategy to bring Northwest into the 1990s as a modern and competitive concern.

Principal Subsidiaries of NWA, Inc.

Northwest Airlines, Inc.; Montana Enterprises, Inc.; Affiliated Enterprises, Inc.; Compass 315, Ltd.

Further Reading

Airlines of the U.S. Since 1914 by R.E.G. Davies, London, Putnam, 1972; The Sky Their Frontier: The Story of the Worlds Pioneer Airplanes and Routes 1920-1940 by Robert Jackson, Shrewsbury, England, Airlife, Ltd., 1983.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
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"Northwest Airlines, Inc.." International Directory of Company Histories. . Encyclopedia.com. 15 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Northwest Airlines, Inc.." International Directory of Company Histories. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 15, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/books/politics-and-business-magazines/northwest-airlines-inc-0

"Northwest Airlines, Inc.." International Directory of Company Histories. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/books/politics-and-business-magazines/northwest-airlines-inc-0