Tuesday, February 02, 2010

End of the Line

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.


amulbunny said...

I remember when Herman the Goose became Republic. My first stepdad worked for TWA for 42 years and weathered a lot of changes.I am glad that he died before he saw the rape of TWA by AA.
I will always remember the NW ad that sang, Northwest Orient......Airlines.

God bless to the red tail.

Tim G in MN said...

Hey Amulbunny,

That's "Northwest Orient (big gooong!) AAAIIrrrlines!"... a favorite childhood memory of waking up every morning to that jingle on my parents' bedroom radio.

The King is Dead. LONG LIVE THE KING!

Tim G in MN

Lawrence said...

I worked for Northwest through Mesaba as a ground handler for two years in Albany, NY. I was part of the that became unemployed during the merger. Im grateful that Northwest and Mesaba treated us employees with enough respect to tell us two months in advance that our station was going to be taken over by Delta Global, but on the other hand I really doubted my crew was being represented by our management. We'd fight tooth and nail for ANYTHING. We had our station hours cut several times, and had a station manager eight months of the two years I was employed. We worked a skeleton crew, that was battle hardened. The stress levels would be pretty high at times, and we'd be about ready to brawl each other, but when all was said and done we were proud of the work we did.

GreenPilot said...

another great post. sad I won't be hearing the Northwest callsign anymore, but hopeful that this is best long term.

the only thing that's constant in aviation is change. the more I'm around it, the more I realize it's true.

good stuff Sam.

Dave Starr said...

A worthy post, Sam. It isn't only Americans who will miss the Northwest name. Northwest represented the US to generations from many Asian countries, especially the early days after WWII when few others even bothered with the problems of the Pacific. I had the pleasure to be flying Philippines to DTW on the second of Feb and heard the pilots poking fun at themselves as they tried to remember to call themselves Delta rather than NWA.

BTW, from the customer standpoint then merger looks good ... for the first time ever I was able to book etickets from an overseas location and Delta has done away with layers of idiocy in the seat selection process. I hope the treat the crews as well as I see them treating the customer in my first Widget Co experience.

I too deeply miss TWA ... kiving proof that excellence in service doesn't always lead to success in this business.

オテモヤン said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

In my life...The things we've seen and what we will see...Eastern, Pan Am, TWA. NWA won't get to live out the tale of parking the last Airbus in the desert and DH back in an old DC-9. My brother-inlaw was on the team of maintanence planners when the B-747 was reprogrammed, saving big $. As a family, we were able to tour one that was gutted and climb the heights of even the tail inspection; he eventually left after relocating to Duluth and getting fed up w/ all the unnecessary conflict induced by mgmt. Thanks for your blog and efforts in word. May your integrity bring safety and blessing for pilots and their charge!

Paradise Driver said...

Thought that you might enjoy this movie - Amelia:


Ted said...

Are you sure it's a good idea to state outright who an airline you used to only refer to as a nickname actually was? Especially in conjunction with AnAirline'sRealName's merger with AnotherAirline'sNickname? That kind of makes it obvious who AnotherAirline'sNickname actually is, too.

It's already possible for even a non-pilot to figure out what your nicknames are for Northwest, Delta, Compass etc. if they try hard. Personally, I'm glad for that, because it enables me to use this information to help me make decisions about what to do with my money...but that, of course, is the problem. Do you really want to make this *easy*? Already you of course can't blog 100% freely...do you want to make that situation even worse?

I'm reminded of another pilot who has named himself "TheHisAirline'sRealNameKid," who's always blogging about how horrible HisAirline'sRealName's subsidiary is, but of course, the actual HisAirline'sRealName is the best airline in the world... The worst part is that he's entirely too convincing, meaning he doesn't come off as self-protective, but instead as an idiot/brainwashed. Especially, I'm sure, to the non-pilot who might not immediately recognize HisAirline'srealName *as* an airline's name. Do you want to put yourself in *that* position?

Maybe you thought it was already obvious -- and maybe for another pilot it would be. Not so for passengers -- you know, the people whose reactions to your blogging might actually affect your employer's bottom line. Don't change that.