As it shrinks its domestic operations, Northwest is putting more passengers on new, more fuel-efficient aircraft.
As a flight attendant checks the overhead bins, Jerry Goehring, center, settled into his upgraded first-class seat aboard Compass Airlines flight 2072 to Pittsburgh Thursday afternoon on an Embraer 175. Goehring usually flies for business twice a week.
At Northwest Airlines, old and big is making way for shiny, new and smaller.
On some Twin Cities flights, including those bound for St. Louis and for La Crosse, Wis., customers now board 76-seat regional jets, which feature leather seats and first-class cabins, rather than larger, older DC-9s.
Surging fuel prices this year means more passengers than ever are flying on the smaller jets, which are operated by Compass Airlines, a Northwest subsidiary, and Mesaba Airlines, which Northwest acquired in bankruptcy. By December, each carrier will be flying 36 new 76-seaters.
A slowing economy and skyrocketing fuel prices have forced many of the big airlines to cut costs and raise fares. Often, that means putting fewer seats in the sky. Domestic flying by Northwest pilots -- called mainline capacity -- is expected to drop 18 to 19 percent in the fourth quarter when compared with last year's final quarter.
However, not all of those seats will disappear. This year, Northwest has been shifting a good portion of mainline seats to regional carriers, which have lower labor and fuel costs.
During the second half of this year, Northwest's regional flying is expected to grow by 50 to 55 percent.
That trend is evident at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, where the number of Northwest's passengers on its domestic mainline flights fell by 1.2 million, to 9.5 million, during the first half of this year. Simultaneously, passenger volume on Compass and Mesaba -- Northwest Airlink carriers -- grew by about 1.2 million, according to the Metropolitan Airports Commission.
The new 76-seat jets are instrumental in helping Northwest trim costs without abandoning markets. They allow the airline to defend or expand its footprint in Midwest markets that may be too small for a DC-9 or other older jet, but too big for a 50-seater.
Dave Davis, Northwest's chief financial officer, said the airline is focused on "making sure we have the right-size aircraft on the right routes."
Pam Hesch, an Inver Grove Heights resident who flies weekly on business, appreciates the switch.
On Thursday, she traveled to Pittsburgh on a new Compass airplane, ready to enjoy the first-class cabin. "It certainly is nicer than the smaller jets I fly on," she said, referring to the 50-passenger, all-coach aircraft Pinnacle Airlines flies for Northwest.
The addition of the 76-seaters fills a big gap in Northwest's fleet, which didn't have any airplanes between 50 seats and 100 seats after it phased out Mesaba's old 69-seat, four-engine Avros. Northwest's DC-9s, which have an average age of about 35 years, seat 100 to 125 passengers.
With fewer seats in a given market, the airline potentially has more pricing power if it comes closer to meeting market demand. Davis, who oversees the regional carriers, said the DC-9 flights have the highest portion of empty seats among Northwest's big jets.
The new airplanes are 30 percent more fuel-efficient than DC-9s, Davis said, offering the airline major savings when fuel prices are high. Union pilots at Compass earn less than pilots at Northwest and flight attendants at the smaller carrier aren't unionized.
Northwest started the year with 94 DC-9s and plans to end it by flying only 61. It is also removing 14 Boeing 757s and small Airbuses from its fleet.
John Bendoraitis, Compass president, said the new jets also have been used to add flights on current routes, provide year-round service on seasonal routes and expand into new markets.
Some fliers shudder when they learn they're flying in often-cramped regional planes. Many lack bin space for carry-ons and there's not enough space for tall passengers to walk upright down the aisle.
Davis said Northwest is offering a better experience. Fliers in first class are served the same meals on Compass and Mesaba that they get on Northwest. Without stooping, a person 6 feet 2 inches tall can walk down the aisle of a Mesaba jet, manufactured by Bombardier in Canada, while the Compass planes, Embraers made in Brazil, have enough head room for even a basketball player who is 6 feet 7.
Mesaba's 76-seat jets have enlarged windows and overhead bins that can hold two roller bags. "We are putting a superior product out in the marketplace," said John Spanjers, Mesaba president.
Mike Hallam, a 6-foot-2 contractor from Pittsburgh, said he still prefers a larger airplane, such as the Airbus A319 he flew on from Edmonton to the Twin Cities on Thursday.
He described the new Compass plane as "smooth riding," but added that "for bigger guys, it's too tight."
Jerry Goehring, a service engineer from Pittsburgh who travels about twice a week, labeled the Compass 76-seater as a "compromise" aircraft. "Compared to the full size DC-9s, I don't like them quite as well," he said. But he likes the first-class cabins and said the seats on the Embraer are "much more comfortable" than seats on many other small airplanes.
The regional carriers are making a substantial contribution to Northwest's business. In the second quarter, Northwest mainline passenger operations generated $2.6 billion in revenue while regional carriers provided $512 million. In addition to owning Mesaba and Compass, Northwest contracts with Pinnacle to fly 50-seat jets.
"Northwest has made a stand that regional jet flying is something that is going to be important" to it, said Bill Hochmuth, a senior research analyst for Thrivent Investment Management, Minneapolis. He said Northwest is "finding better economics in those [new] planes" because they burn less fuel.
The commitment to fly 76-seaters dates to the carrier's bankruptcy, when management aggressively negotiated with Northwest pilots to permit the creation of Compass.
At Mesaba, the carrier will have 102 planes after it takes delivery of its final 76-seater. Mesaba, where Northwest phased out its 35 Avro jets, is undergoing a rebirth.
"We went through some growing pains," said Mark Nagel, chairman of the Mesaba pilots union. Mesaba, which employs about 1,050 pilots, potentially faced a pilot shortage when it was looking to hire about 500 pilots to help operate a bigger fleet.
But, some of the new Mesaba pilots were hired with a lot of experience. They came from carriers that halted service this year, such as ATA Airlines, Aloha Airlines and Twin Cities-based Champion Air.
Mesaba had a near-death episode in bankruptcy, but its management ultimately negotiated labor cuts and made plans to operate with just 49 Saab turboprops. Now its fleet has been beefed up. It also has 17 50-seat jets and will soon be flying three dozen 76-seaters.
If Delta Air Lines wins federal approval to acquire Northwest, Northwest CEO Doug Steenland told analysts that Compass and Mesaba will survive because they serve "key parts of the network."
Liz Fedor • 612-673-7709