For the second time in ten years, I was present to witness the death of a storied old name in aviation. On January 31, Northwest Airlines - the airline I referred to here as "RedCo" - ceased to exist after 84 years of continuous service. Overnight, the airwaves at Minneapolis Approach went from being dominated by the Northwest callsign to that of its successor, the equally venerable WidgetCo. Of course, this was only the last step in a process that's been ongoing for more than a year: most airport signage and employee uniforms were changed back in March of last year, nearly all of the fleet has been repainted in Widget livery, and the changeover to Widget manuals and procedures was complete a month ago. "Inventory Cutover" was simply the final step in erasing the Northwest identity.
In 2001, I was an intern at Trans World Airlines when their purchase by American took place. In retrospect, that merger turned out to be pretty tragic. All of the flight attendants, most of the ground staff, and many of the pilots lost their jobs. One of my coworkers in Training Systems Development committed suicide shortly after the department was shut down. The formerly busy St Louis Airport is eerily quiet today; it's barely a focus city for American. The neighborhood surrounding my old crashpad was razed to make way for a now ironically unnecessary runway, and the old TWA training center now sits forlornly in the middle of the airport. TWA's demise was all the more poignant for its rich history shaped by aviation giants like Charles Lindbergh, Jack Frye, and Howard Hughes, as well as the pathos of its decline at the hands of corporate raider Carl Icahn and subsequent struggle for survival only to suffer the tragedy of Flight 800.
Time will tell the wisdom of the Northwest-WidgetCo merger, but for now the results seem to be much more positive than the American-TWA debacle. The route structure is fairly complimentary, reducing the amount of overlapping flying on the chopping block. Both airlines were relatively financially strong going into the merger, and are already seeing some fairly impressive returns from merger synergies which should only grow as the airlines are further integrated. The merger has been marked by a notable lack of acrimony between the pilot groups, and by playing ball they have been able to recoup a significant portion of what they lost in bankruptcy, putting them in a good position for contract negotiations two years from now. The negative impact on employees has been mostly limited to management and some outstations' ground personnel. Eighteen months ago, I fully expected to be out of a job by now as NewCo was inundated by WidgetCo flowdowns. Instead, there's talk of limited pilot hiring at Widget in the next year despite the horrible economy.
I have mixed feelings about seeing the Northwest name disappear. Growing up in Minnesota, Northwest was the hometown airline; through its presence, the Twin Cities derived a greater amount of prestige and connectedness to the world than a small metropolis on the frozen prairies of the upper Midwest would normally command. Northwest had a long rich history of technical excellence; they prided themselves in running a smooth operation connecting the far corners of the globe despite operating in some of the harshest environments on earth. They were long gifted with shrewd management that refused to chase after fancy, shiny new toys, preferring to keep debt low with reliable, paid-for equipment.
That said, Northwest had the most reliably anti-labor management in the industry over the last 30 years. It permeated every level of management, from the various CEOs down to base administrators. They seemed to thrive on conflict, forcing unnecessary showdowns with outrageous demands during negotiations, and regularly going after individual employees with their army of lawyers at other times. The employee groups, for their part, responded with unchecked militancy; the pilots were known throughout the industry as "cobras" (because "they'd strike at anything"). This only hardened management attitudes, creating a vicious cycle. Widget management has a long history of good employee relations, with an industry reputation for doing the right thing by their employees. This has served to keep most of the employee groups except the pilots non-unionized, and the relationship with ALPA has been relatively congenial. Despite the large number of ex-Northwest managers in WidgetCo's new leadership, the CEO has unequivocally stated that he expects this part of Northwest's legacy to die with the merger. I certainly hope that's the case.
For NewCo, the changes brought about by the merger have been pretty small so far. That will likely change this year. Widget has big plans for New York City, and it appears that we figure heavily in their increased domestic flying out of LaGuardia. Our management just announced that our Memphis base is closing later this year. It's also widely rumored that the Minneapolis base will also be shrinking as more airplanes go to the LGA operation over the summer. A New York crew base, however, is not a foregone conclusion; one widely-discussed alternative is a Chicago base with NewCo taking over all the MDW-LGA flying and shuttling crews in and out that way. We'll see what happens. The only inevitability in this industry is constant change, and I'm incredibly fortunate to have personally escaped the turmoil of the last two years thus far.