Trip Report: Good Times on Northwest’s Aging Aircraft

Considering how much we were talking about aging aircraft last week, it’s fitting that I flew the king of aging aircraft this past weekend . . . Northwest Airlines. Sure, our flight home was on a relatively new 8 year old A319, but our other two flights were on a 22 year old 757 and a pristine, nearly 39 year old DC-9. Did I feel unsafe because they were older? Not at all.

Even more surprising than that, this was a pretty good experience flying Northwest, an airline I hadn’t flown in six years (on purpose). For this trip, we needed to be in Indy on Saturday but we didn’t want to miss any work. That meant we had to take a Friday night redeye. Our original plans to fly Midwest were foiled when they started slashing their flights, so we had to look for other options. In the end, we settled on Northwest and paid $320 each to fly. Why did we choose them? Two reasons:

  1. Their Detroit hub has a great early morning operation that allowed us to get in to Indy 2 hours before anyone else could get us there. (This is a nice competitive advantage for them)

  2. On the way home, we could take the only nonstop around

Let’s get into the details.

August 22, 2008
Northwest #338 Lv Los Angeles (LAX) 1000p Arr Detroit (DTW) 515a
LAX: Gate 27, Runway 24L, Dept OT
DTW: Gate A34, Runway 22L(?), Arr 20m Early
Aircraft: N515US, Boeing 757-251, Silver Compass, 100% Full
Seat: 41A
Flight Time: 3h38m

It was no secret that I wasn’t looking forward to this flight. A sub-4 hour redeye meant that I wouldn’t be getting much sleep at all that night. We arrived at LAX about an hour early and despite an annoyingly slow ID checker who felt the need to comment on everyone’s photos (I apparently look better in person), it only took 10 minutes to get through security.

Terminal 2 was absolutely hopping that night. There was a delayed Virgin Atlantic flight to London, a late night Air France trip to Paris, one of the Air New Zealand runs to Auckland, and a mass of humanity. They started boarding our jam-packed flight with pre-boarding, First Class, and elite members. Then instead of tiered boarding, they just called for “all rows” and a huge pile of people lined up to board. Not sure why Northwest has given up on structured boarding, but this was how they handled every flight on this trip. Needless to say, telling 200 people to board at once is not exactly the best way to keep stress levels low.

I was pissed to find out earlier in the week that our 757-300 had been downgauged to a 757-200. IMG00540So our previously ideal seat assignments had been replaced with the window and middle in the very last row. Row 41 only exists on the left side on this plane, and we were right up against the galley. My best efforts to get these changed failed, so we just had to put up with it.

We took our seats and surprisingly found a blanket and pillow laid out for everyone. We cozied up in our little corner of the plane and tried to sleep through the flight. Redeyes are one of the few times where I prefer airlines, like Northwest, that offer no inflight entertainment. It keeps the cabin nice and dark, or at least it would have if we weren’t sitting next to the brightly lit galley the whole flight (at left). Oh yeah, and the wingtip lights kept shining in as well, but at least we could close the window shade.

IMG00544Ok, so maybe this wasn’t the best redeye experience, but we got in nice and early and that gave me a chance to poke around Detroit’s airport. The new terminal in Detroit is really, really nice. It’s easy to get around with a tram riding overhead (at right), and there’s plenty of room to find a quiet place. After leaving a pretty nasty terminal 2 at LAX, this was a very welcome, and as far as connections go, this place has to be at the top of the list. And this was my impression at 5a in a very groggy state. I can’t imagine what it would have been were I actually awake.

August 23, 2008
Northwest #1005 Lv Detroit (DTW) 615a Arr Indianapolis (IND) 727a
DTW: Gate A49, Runway 21R, Dept 4m Early
IND: Gate A3, Runway 23R, Arr 6m Early
Aircraft: N613NW, Douglas DC-9-32, Silver Compass, ~25% Full
Seat: 6A
Flight Time: 42m

We wandered over to our flight and saw that it was not going to be a full one. I peaked out the window to see our trusty bird parked at the gate, waiting for us to wake her up. IMG00547This particular DC-9 was a series 30 model and was built in late 1969, nearly 39 years ago. I didn’t think I’d have a chance to fly another DC-9 before they all ended up in the boneyard, so this was a fantastic treat.

The pilots (including self-proclaimed Captain Steve) were in a good mood that morning and you could tell they were having fun up front. By the time we took the runway, there were slivers of light coming up over the horizon illuminating the partly cloudy skies. IMG00556The -9, with a light load, lept off the runway and rocketed us into the morning twilight.

This was a quick trip, so we had a choice of OJ or water and then soon after, it was time to descend. In traditional Indy style, the long taxi from the end of the runway to the terminal seemed to take almost as long as the flight. After we parked, Captain Steve offered to take a picture of me sitting in the old school DC-9 cockpit. You really don’t see cockpits like these anymore. How great that was.

August 24, 2008
Northwest #771 Lv Indianapolis (IND) 645a Arr Los Angeles (LAX) 816a
IND: Gate A4, Runway 23R, Dept 6m Early
LAX: Gate 24A, Runway 24R, Arr 23m Early
Aircraft: N320NB, Airbus A319-114, Silver Compass, ~60% Full
Seat: 8C
Flight Time: 3h51m

We had an enjoyable wedding shower Saturday night (seriously, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I had envisioned a shower to be – no stupid games and lots of drinking), and then we headed to an airport hotel for a very short sleep before our far too early flight home. It was worth it to take this early flight because it’s the only nonstop of the day, and it was worth it to stay in an airport hotel to avoid the 45 minute early morning drive from my fiancee’s parents’ place.

IMG00558We were at the airport an hour before departure and we sailed through security. As we headed to the gate, we saw a lot of people gathering down the hall. What for? Starbucks of course. It hadn’t opened yet, but the growing masses outside started to look desperate. I think this captain was getting ready to organize an invasion. We, however, were not interested in staying awake on the flight, so we just went to the gate and waited.

Once again, they did the whole “mass boarding” thing, but with only about 60% of seats filled, it wasn’t nearly as bad. We took our seats and shortly after, the flight attendant announced that everyone was onboard, so we could move around and get comfortable. My fiancee and I found a row to ourselves (even if it was non-reclining).

I tried to sleep but I couldn’t, so I wandered back to the galley and hung out with the flight attendants for awhile. Since most people were asleep, there wasn’t much for them to do. They seemed surprisingly upbeat about the impending Delta merger. Or maybe they were just indifferent. Either way, they seemed to think it would all be fine for them in the end.

Two of the flight attendants are what they still call “Green Tails” – meaning they used to work for Republic before that airline was swallowed by Northwest 20+ years ago. (The Northwest people are “Red Tails”) Considering those differences still remain today, I wish Delta luck in integrating all these workgroups together.

I finally went back to my seat to find my fiancee completely sprawled out. I wedged my way into the aisle seat and drifted in and out until we landed nice and early in LA. The best news of all? We had the whole day to sleep and recover.

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