Northwest Airlines is an airline headquartered in Eagan, Minnesota, with three major hubs in the United States: Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport, and Memphis International Airport. Northwest also operates flights from a hub in Asia at Narita International Airport near Tokyo and also operates transatlantic and Asian flights in cooperation with partner KLM from Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam.
Northwest is currently the world's fourth largest airline in terms of RPK (revenue-passenger-kilometers). In addition to operating one of the largest domestic route networks in the U.S., Northwest carries more passengers across the Pacific (5.1 million in 2004) than any other U.S. carrier, and carries more air cargo than any other passenger airline. The airline, along with its parent company and subsidiaries, is currently operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
Northwest Airlines' regional flights are operated under the name Northwest Airlink by Mesaba Airlines and Pinnacle Airlines. Its frequent flyer program is called WorldPerks.
Northwest Airlines was founded in 1926 by Col. Lewis Brittin, under the name Northwest Airways. Like other early airlines, Northwest's focus was not in hauling passengers, but in flying mail for the U.S. Post Office Department. The fledgling airline established a mail route between Minneapolis, Minnesota and Chicago, Illinois, using open cockpit biplanes such as the Curtiss Oriole.
Northwest began flying passengers in 1927. In 1928, the airline started its first international route with service to Winnipeg, Canada. The airline's operations were expanded to smaller cities in the region by the end of the decade. In 1931 Northwest sponsored Charles and Anne Lindbergh on a pioneering flight to Japan, scouting what would become known as the Northwest Airlines Great Circle route, and proving that flying through Alaska could save as much as 2,000 miles on a New York-Tokyo route. In 1933, Northwest was designated to fly the Northern Transcontinental Route from New York City to Seattle, Washington; it adopted the name Northwest Airlines the following year. Northwest stock began to be publicly traded in 1941.
During World War II, Northwest joined the war effort by flying military equipment and personnel from the continental United States to Alaska. During this time, Northwest began painting their aircraft tails red, as a visual aid in the often harsh weather conditions. This experience with the severe northern climate led the government to designate Northwest as the United States' main North Pacific carrier following the war.
In the spring of 1947 Northwest began staffing its Tokyo base with company personnel, flying them across the "Northern Route" in twin-engine DC-3 aircraft. On 15 July 1947, Northwest became the first airline to fly a commercial passenger flight from the U.S. to Japan, using The Manila, a Douglas DC-4 aircraft, by way of Anchorage. From Tokyo, the flight continued to Seoul, Shanghai, and Manila. Taipei replaced Shanghai after the end of Chinese civil war of 1949. With its new routes, the airline rebranded itself as Northwest Orient Airlines, although the legal name of the company remained Northwest Airlines.
Following the September 11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent downturn in the airline industry, Northwest was forced to make major changes to its business structure. Immediately after the attacks, the retirement of costly and aging Boeing 727 aircraft was accelerated as new Airbus A320s went into service. In addition, the airline pursued options to reduce costs across the board, including removing pillows, peanuts, pretzels, in-flight entertainment on domestic flights, and newspapers and magazines. Also, over 50 McDonnell Douglas DC-9, Boeing 757, Boeing 747, and Airbus A320 family aircraft have been withdrawn from use in an attempt to lower overall capacity and save money.
Following many years of a pioneering and close partnership with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Northwest, along with partners KLM and Continental Airlines, joined the SkyTeam Alliance, a partnership of nine airlines from around the world, on 15 September 2004. This was partially a result of Air France acquiring KLM, forming the Air France-KLM group. The airline continued to hemorrhage money, however. In the spring of 2005, a media spectacle occurred when the news leaked that top executives in the company had been selling much of their stock. Subsequently, shareholders filed lawsuits against four top officials for insider trading, including Chairman Gary Wilson, CEO Doug Steenland, former director Al Checchi and former CFO Bernie Han.
Northwest's labor problems also continued into the 21st century. On August 20, 2005, after months of negotiations, an impasse declared by the NMB and a 30-day cooling off period, the over 4,750 Northwest aircraft mechanics, janitors, and aircraft cleaners represented by AMFA went on strike against the company. After numerous negotiation sessions, no agreement was reached, and the company began hiring permanent replacement workers. In mid-October, after permanently hiring about 500 non-union workers, Northwest made a final offer to the union. The offer would have saved about 500 union jobs and offered four weeks of severance pay to terminated employees. This offer was significantly worse than the original declined by the union, which would have saved over 2,000 jobs and offered 16 weeks of severance pay. On 21 October 2005, AMFA announced that it would not allow its members to vote on the offer, citing that parts of the contract would violate the union's commitment to its members. Finally, in late December 2005, Northwest made what it termed its "final offer" to the union. The agreement would have terminated all striking workers and given them rights to unemployment compensation. The union voted down the offer.
Despite far-reaching money saving initiatives, Northwest was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for the first time in its 79-year history. The filing took place in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York on 14 September 2005. With Northwest's filing, four of the six largest U.S. carriers were operating under bankruptcy protection. Northwest joined Delta Air Lines (which filed just minutes before), United Airlines, and US Airways in bankruptcy. US Airways and United Airlines have since emerged from bankruptcy protection. Northwest common stock shares dropped more than 50% for the second time in three days following the news, largely because stock is generally cancelled as part of the bankruptcy process. In the following weeks, Northwest Airlink carriers Mesaba Airlines and Pinnacle Airlines both announced that Northwest had missed payments to them for their Airlink flying. Northwest also announced plans to shrink its Airlink fleet by over 45 aircraft. Mesaba Aviation filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy on October 13, 2005.
Hours before the start of a possibly devestating strike, Northwest was able to secure a new contract agreement with its various unions. Northwest has not yet announced an exact date to pull out of bankruptcy.