Trip Report: Good Times on Northwest’s Aging Aircraft

Northwest, Trip Reports

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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16 comments on “Trip Report: Good Times on Northwest’s Aging Aircraft

  1. The reason NWA does mass boarding is because their studies have shown that it takes less time to board a plane than tiered boarding. Think about it, with tiered boarding chances are only 1 to 3 people can be putting their carry-ons away and sitting down at a time. That’s a long time for a few hundred people. But with mass boarding, you could have 1 to 3 people in several spots along the entire length of the cabin putting away their carry-ons and sitting down at a time – let’s say 7 to 20 people at once depending on the plane. That’s a huge increase in productivity.

    If people are edgy during the process, just remind them that seating is ASSIGNED. They’re not going to lose their seat or miss their flight.

  2. I always enjoy a nice visit through Detroit to go to Indy as well. I’m also looking forward to Indy’s new terminal which should hopefully cut down on that long taxi.

  3. Great post! I really enjoy your trip reports, with lots of details only true airline geeks can appreciated. Keep up the good work, and say hi to “self-proclaimed Captain Steve” if you see him again.

  4. I flew a few NWA flights a couple of months ago (they seemed to be the only convenient carrier for my business trips), and at the time, boarding was done in tiered row groups, starting with the back of the aircraft.

    Of course, these were mid-day flights, so you might have experienced something special for early or late departures.

    Glad you enjoyed Detroit! Of all the hub terminals that I’ve been through, Detroit on NWA has been nothing but a pleasure, walking end to end takes less than 15 minutes, and tram certainly decreases that time.

  5. It wasn’t more than a couple years ago NW finally retired their DC-10’s. Those felt like flying in a tank compared to the A330’s they replaced them with. I miss the tri-jets.

    Never been fond of the DC-9, but as a Worldperks Elite you can imagine how many times I’ve flown on them. They do appear to be replacing the DC-9 with CRJ900 which has moved a lot of my business travel to AA and their MD-80. I am no fan of the CRJ & ERJ aircraft and make it know with where my business goes.

    But to defend NW, they get a lot of knocks for an older fleet but I do believe they now have one of the youngest international fleets around and worlds largest A330 fleet. Additionally they are a launch customer for the 787, so in widebodies they’re doing fine.

  6. I flew NWA for the first time in 25 (!) years recently (I was 7 at the time, TPE – Tokyo). Since I have status with Continental, my upgrade cleared without a hitch. Being an United flyer, this is unusual since I didn’t have to use any instrument to upgrade, but it’s certainly nice.

    The FA on both trips were friendly, much more so than the sometimes surly FA on United. The seats were a bit.. umm.. old-school, with the bus styled footrest in front of you. For the 2 hour flight, they served a selection from the snack basket that you can pick from, which includes crackers, Biscoff, and fresh fruit – apples and bananas. This was probably one of the better flying experience I had in a while.

    The NW terminal at Detroit is one of the better airport facilities I’ve been to. There were a good selection of restaurants, shops, and Vino Volo.

    Chris – I believe the all rows boarding is SOP for NW.

  7. I flew NW last October IND-DTW-ALB, DC-9s all the way. None of my flights were even half full, it was great. I was able to sprawl out on the seats and relax (even though neither of the flights were exactly long). However, and I rarely say this, my experience on US (ALB-PHL-IND) may have been better on the way out. I don’t know why but it was my first experience on the E-175 (the PHL-IND portion, ALB-PHL was an A319) and I was pretty amused with the new plane smell that the Republic jet had.

    I do believe when I was in IND we boarded by seat groups, but at DTW boarded all together (there was seriously only 15 or 20 people on the plane).

  8. Glad you enjoyed your early morning visit to DTW. Let us know next time you come through… if it’s not at some insane hour, we’d love to give you the grand tour!

    Scott @ DTW

  9. Yeah, Alaska’s just retired their MD-83s that are maybe half the age of those DC-9s. While I understand why (fuel, fuel and fuel), I always liked the fact that F and the front of the plane on any of the Mad Dogs is whisper-quiet (of course, there’s also the seats in the back that are so loud you need ear plugs).

  10. Another data point: NWA coach was better than fine from LGW to their hub (Minininiappolis?). From there to LAX was horrid but they were clearing a backlog from canellations due to bad weather.

  11. Way back when the ice age was receeding and I began to work at Delta, we used to have to clean overnight DC-9s. I always thought that the cockpit looked like you would expect a DC-3 or Convair 440 cockpit to look like. I always liked the DC-9 as a passenger, and flew on examples belonging to Air Canada, Continental, Delta, Hughes AirWest, and Ozark. It was the easiest airplane I ever worked on the ramp. Half the time, you didn’t even need to get inside the bin. The most difficult ramp task was unloading a human remains from the DC-9.

    When I left Delta in 1994, we still had FAs identifying themselves as ex-Northeast. (I think we even had a few ex Chicago and Southern Employees.) So, with the latest merger, we will have ex NW, ex-SO, ex-RC, ex-AirWest, ex-PA, ex-WA, ex-NE, all blending with DL folks.

  12. Chris – Yeah, that’s not very clear, huh? That was my description of the livery. It’s the current silvery one with the big compass logo on the tail. Actually, do they even have any in the old bowling shoe colors? I saw a few airlink planes in the old livery but not any mainline ones.

  13. My very first airplane trip was on Northwest back in the summer of 1977, San Francisco to Honolulu roundtrip on 747’s. The flight going hardly had anyone one it and the flight attendants in last coach section pretty much ignored the passengers and say in passenger seats chatting with each other. They were not very nice when they did have passenger contact. Was that a sign of things to come? The return flight was full and I mean full. After HNL the flight goes on to Tokyo and from Tokyo on the return so there was mostly tourist from Japan on the flight.

    Since then I’ve never had the need or urge to fly on NW.

  14. I flew in a 319 in the old colors last year. I’ve seen some photos of the OC on recently but I’m not sure how many are left. I’m going to guess at this point it’s not a high priority for NW as everything will get the DL colors anyway.

  15. Many folks rag on NW, but for every horror story that I’ve heard about NW, I hear just as many about any other airline. Long story short, there are good staff members and bad staff members that work for every airline. As a NW elite, I admit that it’s not the ritziest airline out there, but it’s always gotten me where I needed to go.

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