Garrison Keillor on Northwest

Delta, Northwest

I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself a huge fan of Garrison Keillor’s work, but it’s not like I dislike him either. I’m just sort of ambivalent. But every so often I come across a column of his that I really enjoy. Before I left town on vacation, I came across a piece he wrote entitled “The Old Scout: Singing the Delta Blues” (via Get the Flick), and I thought that others might like to read it as well. It’s a perspective that only someone growing up in Northwest’s backyard could have, but it’s a nice reminder of the romantic side of air travel that exists even today. I recommend reading the entire article, but here are a couple of excerpts to whet your appetite.

We are good travelers, we middle Americans, and when Northwest opened a route to Beijing, everybody and their cousin talked about going there, and this spring the direct Minneapolis-Paris route opened, a beautiful idea to us as we scrape the ice off our windshields. We don’t actually go, of course—we go to work—but we could go on any given day, could write “Au Revoir, Ma Famille” on a paper towel and leave it on the kitchen table under a salt shaker and drive to the airport on the bank of the Minnesota River, abandon the car in a snowbank, flash the plastic, board the plane, and wake up in Paris, like Lindbergh.

And so I mourn the loss of my childhood airline and the silver planes with red tails that rose from the corn. What is a Delta? A delta is mud deposited by the river. Also the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet. Also a sort of triangular shape. But to me it is mud which forms a rich bottomland where they grow cotton and late at night old black men sit in a juke joint and play an old beat-up guitar and sing: “I wanted to go to the Orient someday. Get on a silver plane marked NWA. But that plane that would take me, it done flew away. I heard it on the morning news. They’re wiping out the Ns and Ws. That’s why I got these Delta blues.”

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10 comments on “Garrison Keillor on Northwest

  1. Alas, I find myself gazing fondly at many a NWA jet, realizing that like so many fine airlines, they’re about to become part of something with less heart.

    Despite the fact that it never seemed quite right for an airline called “north” and “west” to be based in the Central time zone, NWA (which I pronounce en-wa) has played a very important role in my life. Their once-upon-a-time deal with American Express allowed me to take my first trip from Utah to NYC as a starving university student for only $100. Years later their winter-time two-fers provided 2 different opportunities for me to travel in Europe. Who cared if it was cold in Europe…it was colder in both Utah and Minnesota.

    Minnesotans will, undoubtedly and unfortunately, see huge cuts in service to their region. Delta, the airline named after a muddy river feature, has outsmarted the shivering Minnesotans, figuring out how to make it sound newsworthy that you can now fly nonstop between Atlanta and Beijing…two cities that I find appallingly unappealing.

    Perhaps even sadder, though, is that as romance is swept further and further out of air travel, few will remember that NWA was once called “Northwest Orient.” Now that’s an airline that says “come with us to exotic places like Shanghai and Tokyo.” Instead, well, I guess we’ll all just have to learn to fantasize about flying to the muddy mouth of the river.

    RIP, en-wa.

    Randall Shirley, Travel Journalist
    Vancouver, BC, Canada

  2. Great article. It will be sad to see the red tails go. I imagine the 747’s won’t even be flying into MSP anymore. Watching those beautiful behemoths defy gravity taking flight over the bluffs of the MN river fascinated me as a child. Now today I travel frequently on NWA, still fascinated when I see those 747-400’s sitting at MSP.

    Prior to the merger news everyone enjoyed beating up on NWA. Their service was never superior, although not any different from Delta IMO. They had the same problems as others with delays, cramped aircraft and so on. People would call them Northworst, but never fly anyone else. After all, they were “our” airline. It was our right to give them a little grief for their own good.

    Now, minus some angry NWA pilots making waves, the red tails are good as gone. Sad given how rich NWA history is compared to Delta. Bad for me given I have no business travel taking me to Atlanta. Bad for the “new” Delta since I’ve now moved all my 100,000+ miles/year over to Continental & American. I wonder how many other ex-NWA travelers there are just like me?

  3. Amazing. Northwest’s performance in terms of on-time, lost baggage and consumer compliants is not exactly great. And now people are starting to treat NW as though it is a revered, near-perfect statesman.

    For those who live in MSP, NW’s hometown, I’m sorry you’re going to lose your hometown airline. I remember living in Dallas when Braniff International (the first one) shut down. I remember being in NYC when Pan Am shut down in ’91 and watching the news a decade or so later when TWA made its last flight. I happened to be in Hawaii on March 31, 2008 when Aloha made its final flights. It’s sad — very, very sad.

    Airlines are interesting beasts. They create an enormous number of jobs and boost civic pride. I recognize how NW makes it extremely convenient to get almost anywhere from the Twin Cities nonstop. And yes, it’s exciting to see those 747s at the airport.

    I have flown both NW and DL, and I have found DL to be better. DL tends to offer higher flight attendant staffing levels (at least on international flights) than NW and is introducing true lie-flat seats in its business class cabin. Domestically, DL is putting satellite TV on some of its 737-800s and 757-200s. Let’s hope they’ll do the same on the NW Airbus 319/320 fleet if the merger goes through.

    I’m told by friends who live in ATL that DL is a good “corporate citizen.” If they are correct, I hope DL will extend that civic involvement to MSP, DTW and MEM, plus other cities where NW has tradtionally played a big role.

    NW deserves credit as one of the world’s pioneering airlines for how it helped forge an industry that is remrkably safe. But please, let’s not heap undeserved mountains of praise on an airline that delivers, at best, a mediocre product.

  4. ” remember living in Dallas when Braniff International (the first one) shut down. I remember being in NYC when Pan Am shut down in ‘91 and watching the news a decade or so later when TWA made its last flight. I happened to be in Hawaii on March 31, 2008 when Aloha made its final flights. It’s sad — very, very sad.”

    Whoa 250Kflier. Talk about airline grim reaper. I’m sure United hopes you don’t have any trips to Chicago planned in the next 18 months.

  5. Hey 250K. Interesting perspective you’ve got. I don’t personally look at NWA as perfect nor near-statesman-like. Far from it. But it was an airline with heart and character.

    Yes, Delta often provides a better business product. But I’ve found that their soul is being progressively diluted as they grow. Granted, in the current climate, it’s hard to expect any airline to have a soul left. But I have very little clue what Delta’s personality is, despite their cheeky new safety video.

    I felt much the same way when US Airways and America West merged. By adopting the dull livery of US Airways, America West’s soul was diluted…at least to my eyes.

    And here we ago again…US Airways and United now in talks. Ugh.

    Before we know it, Hatfields will marry McCoys.

    As someone who’s loved the airline industry my whole life, the only consolation is knowing that clever new carriers WILL eventually pop up…somebody will figure out how to become the “new” Southwest with a whole new model.

    Hmmm…perhaps everyone should take a good look at Air Canada. Still a legacy carrier (and guilty of gobbling up their one-time comptitor Canadian Airlines), they now act like something younger and hipper. They’re coming up with all sorts of innovations, like flight passes and ala carte charging to keep themselves profitable.

    Rambling, cheers.

  6. Randall, I agree with you. Too many airlines have lost their souls. I think one reason why so may people like WN is, in part, that they’ve done a better job at preserving their core “DNA” as the airline has grown. WN may not be perfect, but I’d say they do a better job here than than most airlines. I believe this is another reason why people respond to new generation airlines like JetBlue and Virgin America.

    With technology so much at the forefront of everyting we do (especially within the airline industry), that need for “soul” becomes even more important. If the DL-NW merger is approved, I hope the management teams of both airlines will take the time to examine the positive things that makes each airline distinctive — what gives each carrier its DNA or soul — and find ways to preserve that going forward.

  7. To 250K flyer, I suggest you re-read what I wrote as there was no mention of it being a perfect airline. Nor was I trying to debate the creature comforts of NW aircraft vs. that of Delta.

    I will miss the history. Long before Japan and China became the industrial powers they are today NW DC-3’s were hopscotching around the Pacific Ocean connecting a midwestern river town to a whole other world. In airline history this ranks up there with Pan Am’s around the world flights. That what will be revered.

    As for the unenjoyable task of picking flights for business travel, outside of NWA’s current route map, Continental and American get me where I need to be most often. I’m sure the new Delta will get some of my business, but not if they make me fly through ATL. I’ll take DFW over that, thank you very much.

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