Northwest Airlines Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A worldwide commercial airline with one of the largest route structures of any U.S. airline.

As was true for many U.S. airlines, Northwest Airways began as a mail carrier. In 1926, it inaugurated mail service between Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Chicago, Illinois. It began passenger service in the following year, carrying a total of 106 passengers in 1927, mostly on a route between Chicago and Minneapolis with intermediate stops. It even became an international carrier when, in 1928, it instituted service to Winnipeg, Manitoba. The service was stopped after three months due to opposition from the Canadian government, but in 1931 it was resumed in a fashion, with flights that actually landed just south of the Canadian border, connecting with a Canadian plane for the last few miles. In 1935, this restriction was lifted and Northwest flew regularly into Canada.

By 1934, the airline had changed its name to Northwest Airlines and passenger service had become a major source of revenue. It expanded its service to the West Coast, serving Seattle, Washington, and cities along a northern route to the west of Minneapolis. In 1939, Northwest Airlines introduced the remarkably able DC-3 aircraft. The Northwest DC-3 carried twenty-one passengers and attained a speed of 140 miles per hour. In the same year, Northwest employed its first stewardess to serve passengers on the DC-3. An interesting record was celebrated in 1999, when a Northwest stewardess, Connie Walker, hired only eighteen years after the introduction of stewardess passenger service, retired at age seventy after forty-two years of service.

Northwest Airlines became a publicly traded company in 1941, when common stock was first made available to the public. It remained on the open stock market until 1989, when it was purchased by Wings Holdings for $3.5 billion.

During World War II, the airline became engaged in defense work for the U.S. government. In the postwar years, the airline began using four-engine planes, beginning with the unpressurized DC-4. At this time, the airline expanded its service to become a transcontinental carrier, initiating flights from the Midwest to New York and to Anchorage. Soon after, it began service to Asia, serving Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai, Manila, and Okinawa. Starting in 1948, Northwest painted the tails of its aircraft red, the distinctive insignia of the airline that endures into the twenty-first century.

In 1949, Northwest scheduled the giant, two-deck, four-engine Boeing Stratocruiser on its long-distance flights across the United States and to Asia. Ten years later, it introduced jet service to Asia, flying long-range DC-8’s to Tokyo and beyond. Flights to Asia were somewhat dependent on the political situation in each country. Flights to Shanghai had to stop in 1949 when China experienced its communist revolution, and Seoul had to be dropped a year later due to hostilities in Korea. Flights to Seoul were reinstituted after the Korean War, but it was not until 1984 that flights to Shanghai were reintroduced. In 1996, an alliance was announced with Air China, the national airline, greatly facilitating travel to and within China.

Travel to Asia, including extensive flights devoted all or mostly to freight, became a major part of Northwest Airlines’ business. The company even went so far as to purchase an entire island, Shemya Island in the Aleutian chain, in order to have a useful stop on the route to Asia. Another important development was the introduction of polar flights, which originally followed a New York-Anchorage-Tokyo route, considerably reducing the travel time between the U.S. East Coast and Asia.

In the 1960’s, the airline introduced pressurized aircraft, including the DC-6 workhorse and the unusual and elegantly designed Lockheed Constellation, allowing for more comfortable flights over the Rockies and other mountain chains. These craft were soon replaced with jets such as the 707 and the DC-8. Greatly increased capacity came in the 1970’s with the introduction of wide-body jets, including both 747’s and DC-10’s. During this period, Northwest remained unique among U.S. airlines in attempting to be both a local carrier and an international one, concentrating its foreign ports in Asia. Only TWA made a similar attempt, concentrating on European destinations.

The 1980’s saw several mergers and consolidations among U.S. airlines. Hughes Airwest, Southern Airlines, and North Central Airlines combined to form a new company called Republic Airlines. Northwest acquired Republic Airlines in 1986, adding its many short-hop routes to Northwest’s domestic network and making it one of the largest U.S. airlines.

The next development of this kind occurred in 1991, when Northwest reached an agreement to become partnered with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. Together, the two airlines offered service to virtually the entire world, with Northwest adding the extensive KLM network of European ports, as well as cities in Eastern Europe, the Caribbean, South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. This arrangement having been found to be mutually beneficial, the two airlines signed a long-term agreement of partnership in 1997.

The early 1990’s saw some troubled periods involving restructuring of the airline’s route systems and changes in its hub design, as well as financial restructuring. Later problems included a pilots’ strike in 1998, which caused the entire airline to cease operations for three weeks.

By the end of the twentieth century, Northwest Airlines was involved with a complex combination of favorable alliances with other airlines, including Continental, Alaska, Mesaba, Hawaiian, American Eagle, America West, Big Sky, and Horizon in the United States. It was also teamed with several foreign carriers in addition to KLM, such as Malaysian, Japan Air System, Alitalia, Jet Airways of India, Pacific Island Aviation, Braathens, CebuPacific, Cyprus, Garuda Indonesian, and Kenya Airways. With these in place, Northwest serves a total of about 750 cities in 120 different countries on seven continents.

  • Jones, G. Northwest Airways. Plymouth, England: Plymouth Press, 1999. A short but informative coverage of statistics and other quantitative details regarding the airline. For some reason, the title uses the original name of the company, which was changed in 1934.
  • Mills, S. E. A Pictorial History of Northwest Airlines. New York: Bonanza Books, 1980. A well-illustrated review of the airline, though all illustrations are in black and white. It is very much out of date, but interesting as a history of the airline’s equipment in the 1970’s and earlier.

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Categories: History