New Book Chronicles A Love-Hate History With Northwest Airlines

Fly through the turbulent skies of Northwest Airlines' history with Jack El-Hai's new book Non-Stop.

To many of us it may have been “Northworst,” but in the fading light of history, the Twin Cities doesn’t seem the same without a large hometown airline. Northwest Airlines had nearly a century of history as an independent carrier, and after its merger and absorption into Delta Air Lines, the University of Minnesota Press commissioned celebrated author Jack El-Hai to tell its story.

Non-Stop, which arrives in bookstores this fall, covers the carrier’s flight path from the swashbuckling early days of commercial aviation to the airline’s era as a leader in technical prowess and global flying to its evolution into just another beleaguered giant corporation.

The airline donated its corporate archives to the Minnesota Historical Society, and Delta Air Lines gave El-Hai access to NWA’s most recent quarter-century of papers, which are not available for public perusal. El-Hai says certain things surprised him:

  • The airline business was phenomenally dangerous in its early days.
  • Detroit, not Minnesota, interests gave the airline its birth.
  • Northwest was incredibly profitable in the 1960s and 1970s, well beyond the rest of the industry.
  • There were few happy stories to tell about the airline’s final three decades.

El-Hai came away with a few contrarian takes. He believes investor Al Checchi, tarred by the airline’s disastrous leveraged buyout, was mistreated and misunderstood by the local press. He found no evidence that the airline placed any value on labor relations or corporate culture in its later decades—unlike Delta, which he believes is “proud and protective of its culture.” And, he posits, by the end, NWA was less an airline than a large, faceless corporation that happened to fly planes for revenue.

El-Hai regards the Northwest story as “a tragedy, in the end. An old corporate tradition came tumbling down. They thought deregulation [1979] would be a boon, but it was basically their undoing.”