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  • Writer's pictureJeff Matthews

Northwest Airlines 15 Minute-Time

The nation’s fifth-largest airline by traffic [Northwest] is taking steps to ensure that it is able to operate reliably in the future, Mr. Steenland [the CEO] said. One important component is a new tentative agreement with its pilots union that would reinstate time-and-a-half premium pay if the pilots fly more than 80 hours a month. —The Wall Street Journal, August 4, 2007. “The mechanic doesn’t have the right tools to fix the problem, so they’re going to have to fly a mechanic in with the right tools. This flight is postponed indefinitely. Please come to the ticket counter and we will help you find alternatives.”

—Northwest Airlines ticket agent, Pellston MI, August 17, 2007.

While the CEO of Northwest Airlines—advertising slogan “We Haven’t Been Bankrupt Since May!”—was telling the Wall Street Journal about his plans to make the Northwest pilots feel better about showing up for work, he neglected to discuss what he was doing to perk up the mechanics who help the planes get off the ground, not to mention the flight attendants who actually interact with the paying customers.

I bring this up because less than two weeks after Mr. Steenland’s mea culpa to the press and his declaration of a fresh new start at the old Northwest, we here at NotMakingThisUp ran into the same old problems with the new Northwest that we seem to have every summer on the way to our annual mid-west vacation along the upper reaches of Lake Huron.

Now, when I am asked by people on the East Coast why we vacation in Northern Michigan in the first place, it’s as if I’d said we were going to Jersey City, say, or Elko, Nevada—no offense to either place.

In the minds of East-Coasters who, if they think of the Great Lakes at all, think of the industrial waters of Lake Erie rather than the vast, clear waters of Lake Superior or Lake Huron, the word “Michigan” conjures up images of shuttered Ford factories and poverty-stricken Detroit, not dune-covered shorelines and crisp, cool summer nights with late sunsets and dramatic moon-rises over quiet pine woods.

And that’s fine with me, because a week away from the getting and spending of the “two-and-twenty crowd”—as Warren Buffett calls the hedge fund quant wizards whose antics nearly brought the financial world to its knees early this month—does wonders for the mind and soul.

The trick, of course, is getting there and back without undue stress, which has proven nearly impossible given the fact that Northwest Airlines, despite having been run by leveraged buyout artists and taken into bankruptcy in 2005, still has a lock on the small airports of the Upper Midwest.

This means that if you want to fly from somewhere on the East Coast to somewhere in Minnesota, or somewhere in Michigan, or somewhere in Indiana, chances are good that at least one leg of your trip will require you to fly on Northwest.

By “to fly on Northwest,” of course, I mean “to be trapped on a grounded plane for extended lengths of time in between long periods in a holding pattern.”

In fact, our most recent trip on Northwest was our third consecutive summer trip disrupted by both the weather and the seeming inability of Northwest to get its act together, which I believe is a legacy of Northwest’s heritage as one of the first leveraged buyouts in the airline business.

Any time somebody wants to tout the merits of private equity, tell them to fly Northwest.

Weather disruptions, for example, shouldn’t be a big deal for an airline—after all, the entire airline industry pretty much operates in weather—except that Northwest apparently hires only those human beings who have lost the ability to speak with regular human beings as opposed to airline-related individuals.

Curious about the holding pattern you’ve been in for a half hour? Wondering about the mechanic scratching his head out on the tarmac? Anxious about whether you’ll make the connecting flight?

The rule on Northwest appears to be, if you don’t ask, they won’t tell you.

Furthermore, Northwest operates on a unique time system I refer to as “Northwest Airlines 15 Minute-Time.”

There are two rules governing this unique time system:

First, everything is always going to happen in about 15 minutes. As in, “We should pull away from the gate in about 15 minutes.” Or, “We should be in a holding pattern for only another 15 minutes.” Or, “We should be on the ground in about 15 minutes.”

Second, “15 Minutes” actually means “At least an hour.”

When the kids were young and diapers needed changing, we drove the 900-plus miles from the East Coast to the Upper Midwest. After our experience flying Northwest Airlines the last three summers running, I decided to look into whether we should start driving again.

I did my own calculations, based on an estimated average driving speed of 65 miles an hour and allowing for stops every five hours.

And, based on Northwest Airlines 15-Minute Time, I think we could make the trip in only about, oh, 15 minutes.

Jeff Matthews I Am Not Making This Up

© 2007 NotMakingThisUp, LLC

The content contained in this blog represents the opinions of Mr. Matthews. Mr. Matthews also acts as an advisor and clients advised by Mr. Matthews may hold either long or short positions in securities of various companies discussed in the blog based upon Mr. Matthews’ recommendations. This commentary in no way constitutes a solicitation of business or investment advice. It is intended solely for the entertainment of the reader, and the author.

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