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 The Brancatelli File

joe NORTHWEST TANKS

BY JOE BRANCATELLI

August 25, 1997 -- A couple of months ago, I slid into a first-class seat on Northwest Airlines' night flight between Detroit and Los Angeles, looked up and saw the devil in the details.

The video monitor hung from the ceiling and was plastered with red-and-white tape that said "Do Not Use." Several overhead bins were similarly decorated and out of service.

"Hey," I muttered out loud, "how are we gonna watch the movie?"

The first-class flight attendant heard me, spun around and snapped: "You want a movie? Go back to coach."

Before I could even muster a response, the captain came on the intercom to announce a delay. A part needed to be replaced. Not a lengthy procedure, the captain assured us, but, since no one knew if the part was in stock here at Northwest's largest hub, a one-hour replacement delay might stretch to three hours if mechanics were forced to jury-rig a repair.

By the time the captain had finished his announcement, the flight attendant was crouched beside my aisle seat.

"Look," he said. "I'm really sorry. I didn't mean to be rude. Give me your account number and I'll get you some bonus frequent-flyer miles."

"Don't bother," I replied. "I was just surprised to see the monitor out. I mean, this is a $1,500 ride. It's not a good way to treat your best customers."

The flight attendant looked at me a moment. "Are you kidding?" he asked. "I've been with this airline for 12 years and I've never seen it like this. I spend my life making apologies to customers. This is the third time this month I've gotten this plane, so it's not like they don't know about the monitor and the bins. And this delay? There won't be a part in stock. There's never a part in stock. It'll be three hours before we leave. I hate to say it, but I'm embarrassed to work here."

In case you haven't flown Northwest lately, rest assured that this little vignette is notable only because it is typical. Northwest is now the worst major U.S. carrier in the sky. How bad? Bad enough for me to say don't fly Northwest if you can possibly avoid it. Fly any other option you can find.

I don't make this recommendation lightly. In fifteen years covering business travel, this is only the second time I've made such a blanket statement. The other time was a decade ago when Frank Lorenzo haphazardly merged PeoplExpress and New York Air into Continental and the carrier was in chaos for months.

At least Fast Frankie had an excuse then: Continental was in crisis, albeit a crisis of his own making. Northwest has no excuse. Theirs is a systemic breakdown. The airline is disintegrating before our eyes. Yet, as recently as Wednesday, Northwest executive vice president Mike Levine insisted the airline was still "competitive."

I say Northwest ain't competitive. I say it's broke and no business traveler should fly it until it's fixed.

Want specifics? Try these:

RELIABILITY
On my last 12 scheduled Northwest segments, here's the scorecard: two outright cancellations; one flight returned after takeover; one flight delayed two hours before boarding; and the nearly three-hour, onboard delay of that Detroit-LAX flight. Want more? Due in part to a conflict with mechanics, as many as 20 percent of Northwest's flights from Detroit were canceled during February and March. Still more? The Japanese government says 40 percent of all the flight problems at Tokyo's Narita Airport involve Northwest equipment. Even more? During the last 12 months for which statistics are available, the Department of Transportation reports that Northwest's on-time performance has slipped seven points, to 74.2 percent, from its ten-year historical rating of 81.1 percent.

CABIN CONDITIONS
Northwest now flies the nation's oldest fleet. The average age is 19 years and they fly some DC-9s that are more than 30 years old. I do not suggest that Northwest is unsafe, but I do contend the passenger cabins of its planes are abominable. On several international flights in first and World Business class, I noted a 50 percent failure rate of the at-seat videos. On more than one flight to Tokyo, I noticed rows of broken Business Class seats cordoned off with masking tape. Domestic first-class cabins are often a shambles, with stained, dirty seats and broken overhead bins. Northwest's maintenance problems are so severe that the airline admits that the high cost of keeping its decrepit fleet flying helped contribute to a 33 percent plunge in profits during the most recent fiscal quarter.

SERVICE LAPSES
Alone among major U.S. carriers, Northwest has refused to upgrade its business-class product. Once a pacesetter, World Business Class now offers less legroom and fewer amenities than any of its U.S. competitors. One example: Even on flights as long as 14 hours, Northwest offers no "executive meal" option. You eat when they tell you to eat. On many flights to Tokyo, flight attendants warn first-class travelers that they may have to wait for their meals until after business-class passengers are served because there are no first-class galleys. First-class domestic travelers often fly from coast-to-coast without ever being offered anything more substantial than a bag of pretzels.

Lest you think I am alone in my judgment of Northwest, be aware that it topped the Transportation Department's most recent complaint report. Northwest's pitiful performance in June--1.31 complaints per 100,000 passengers--wasn't just the worst in the nation, it was more than twice as bad as the airline's performance in June, 1996.

And don't think premium-class passengers aren't noticing. While other carriers on the long-haul Pacific runs are packed, Northwest admits its loads are "soft." On one recent flight out of Tokyo, my wife and I were two of only four first-class passengers. The third passenger was a guest of the airline, so I asked the fourth why he flew Northwest. "I don't. I never fly Northwest if I can help it," he said. "But I couldn't get a seat on United or ANA today."

And when I told my travel agent last week that I no longer wanted to fly Northwest, I offered him the two confirmed-space Pacific upgrade coupons I had picked up along the way. "Don't bother, mate," he responded. "I can't sell Northwest to my Asia customers even with an upgrade."

Now I don't want you to think for even a moment that Northwest is unaware of some of these problems. They obviously are.

Take that busted first-class video monitor on my Los Angeles flight, for example. That problem has been solved. On July 1, Northwest stopped showing movies on all its flights in the continental United States.

This column originally appeared at thetrip.com.

Copyright 1993-2005 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.