Sunday, November 30, 2008

Flying into the sunset.

On October 29, 2008, Northwest Airlines became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Delta Air Lines, after the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) approved their merger on that date. The name of the Atlanta, Georgia-based mega carrier, which takes its name from the Mississippi River delta, will be the surviving brand. Although it will still take some time for them to merge completely, including combining operations, frequent flyer programs, seniority lists, Northwest's aircraft have already started to be repainted into Delta's livery, signaling the beginning of the end of a long history that has continued since its founding on September 1, 1926.

The year 2008, along with many other recent years, saw a number of carriers going into the history books, with some going out of business while others being bought out by others. From record high fuel prices to extreme competition and now a global recession, the aviation environment is becoming more harsh and unforeseeable than ever before. For the mighty incumbent flag carriers too, there is no safe haven. In Europe, former major airlines, some of which are now but a shadow of its glorious past, are being amalgamated into the big three: Air France, British Airways, and Lufthansa (Germany). KLM is now part of Air France; Austrian Airlines, bmi (British Midland), Swiss International Air Lines are now owned by Lufthansa; Iberia (Spain) is discussing a merger with British Airways; others that are so far 'left out' such as SAS (Scandinavian Airlines) face an uncertain future and Alitalia (Italy) ran out of cash. Established low-fare carriers easyJet and Ryanair continue to thrive with their rigorous cost-saving measures, but have felt pinches with strong competitors and other low-cost newcomers.

The same is happening in the U.S., despite at a slower pace. Once a trademark for air travel, Trans World Airlines (TWA) is now part of American Airlines, Phoenix-based America West Airlines acquired troubled U.S. Airways (retaining the latter carrier's name) in 2005, and after the announcement of the Delta/Northwest merger, Continental Airlines decided to switch loyalty from Air France/Delta-led Skyteam Alliance to Star Alliance, agreeing to cooperate comprehensively with United Airlines. The low-fare market is dominated by AirTran Airways, jetBlue Airways, and the mother of all low-cost carriers Southwest Airlines, and many new entrants who have dared to challenge have failed, though tiny Allegiant Air seems to have found its own niche, for the time being. And Alaska Airlines? Where are they heading for?

From March 30, 2009, Northwest's crew will start wearing Delta's uniforms, and rumors have it that they will start standardizing the interiors of the aircraft then, including replacing Northwest's WorldTraveler in-flight magazine with Delta's Sky. Frequent flyer programs WorldPerks and SkyMiles are planned to be combined by the end of next year. On the last day of TWA's operations at San Diego on December 1, 2001, a Northwest crew joined them on the radio frequency saying "we sure are going to miss hearing your call-sign"... probably little or never had they imagined that the same day would come for them just a couple of years later. I find Northwest's product on international routes superior among U.S. airlines that I have flown on before, including their acceptable meal service, warm and charming flight attendants, enjoyable in-flight entertainment (IFE), affordable fares, and a good mileage program. I will surely miss those red tails lined up at Narita Airport.

So long, NWA. :-)

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