Detroit businessmen anted up the $300,000 that Col. Lewis Brittin needed to get Northwest Airlines off the ground in the Twin Cities, but for eight decades the airline and its employees were intricately woven into Minnesota’s fabric.
Northwest had a deep impact on Minnesota’s culture, business community, labor climate and social mores, and all of those elements are brought to life in Jack El-Hai’s “Non-Stop: A Turbulent History of Northwest Airlines.”
History and aviation buffs are a natural readership for this book, which traces the airline’s evolution from its early days of airmail flying to its eventual acquisition by Delta Air Lines. But it also provides absorbing tales for people who care about women’s roles in society, the battles of the labor movement and Minnesota’s connections to the world.
El-Hai’s narrative captures the pivotal business and political moves that allowed Northwest to build its route network from a small Midwest operation to one that held precious international routes in Asia.
He humanizes the airline’s story by spotlighting characters who built the carrier, including longtime CEO Donald Nyrop, who had immense talent for boosting profitability but who left the airline after a 109-day pilots’ strike in 1978.
The book chronicles how early Northwest “stewardesses” couldn’t exceed 120 pounds, were sent off to modeling school and would light cigarettes for male passengers. Years later, Northwest flight attendants won a lengthy legal battle that granted them the right to work after age 32 and after marriage.
El-Hai’s measured approach leaves it up to the readers to recall news events about Northwest with nostalgia, anger or mixed feelings — the leveraged buyout that Al Checchi and Gary Wilson led in 1989; Northwest’s financial problems, taken to the Minnesota Legislature; the way former state Sen. Charlie Berg characterized Checchi as “a mugger in Gucci shoes.”
The book also includes a wide array of historic photos that capture the aircraft, clothing, hairstyles and dining customs through the years.
El-Hai’s telling of Northwest’s history might leave some Minnesota readers wishing that one chapter could be rewritten. In 1985, when Steve Rothmeier was leading Northwest, he and his board made an offer to buy Delta Air Lines. The overture was rejected by Delta. Almost a quarter-century later, the Atlanta-based carrier acquired Northwest.
Fedor is an editor at Twin Cities Business and a former airline reporter for the Star Tribune.