The travelers' take on the new NWAby Martin Moylan, Minnesota Public Radio
Northwest Airlines emerges from bankruptcy Thursday. The airline has slashed labor and other costs, shed huge amounts of debt, and launched a fleet upgrade that will cost billions of dollars. Northwest says it'll be a better airline. Travelers hope so.
St. Paul, Minn. — Historically, travelers have not held Northwest -- or most airlines -- in high esteem. Every year, the University of Michigan assesses customer satisfaction with airlines. The last survey provided both good and bad news for Northwest.
Despite the distraction of reorganizing in bankruptcy and the pay cuts employees have taken, Northwest got a higher customer satisfaction ranking than three big competitors, United, American and Delta airlines. But Northwest's score of 61 was essentially equal to a grade of "D."
"It's not so hot," says David Van Amburg, general manger of the University of Michigan's American Customer Satisfaction Index. "It's below the industry average, for an industry that's one of the worst performing industries in the ASCI. So that's really not very good. Only cable TV is rated below the airline industry."
Northwest's satisfaction rating did fall a few points after the airline declared bankruptcy. And Van Amburg says Northwest's financial woes have no doubt hurt customer satisfaction, as the airline cut flights, employees, pretzels and a lot of other things to save money.
But Northwest CEO Doug Steenland recently told the airline's workers the new Northwest will make customer service a priority.
"Our restructuring has made it possible for us to start reinvesting across the board in customer service," Steenland said in a recorded message. "On the ground and in the air, our customers will see the difference."
A Northwest spokesman declined to reveal any new initiatives in the works.
Customers like Karla Hansen of Grand Rapids, Michigan, are already taking note of some efforts to please them. Hansen likes Northwest's new Airbus jets.
"I've seen some new planes that are more comfortable," she says. "A little more space for overhead, leg room. I'd like to see them keep that up."
Hansen and other Northwest passengers will indeed see more new planes -- at least 100 or so. They'll include dozens of 76-seat regional jets, and 18 Boeing 787 Dreamliners.
The Dreamliners will fly international routes. They can go nonstop from the Twin Cities to India, Shanghai and other destinations that now require a change of planes.
Marty Wahoske, travel manager for Golden Valley-based Tennant Co., says international non-stops are a big deal.
"Nonstop flights to Shanghai ... India," he says. "These are markets that Minnesota business travelers need to reach. The ability to reach them on a non-stop flight is very positive."
Some customers are hoping for more mundane improvements. Ashish Joshi, who flies Northwest three or four times a month, hopes Northwest's improved finances will permit a return to free food for coach passengers.
"Northwest seems to have completely cut out all the snacks that they give you," Joshi says. "On the other hand, Delta, while they were in bankruptcy, would give you food without asking you to pay for it."
Even though he sees room for improvement, Joshi says most Northwest employees remained professional and courteous during the bankruptcy.
Northwest squeezed $1.4 billion in annual savings out of its workers, largely by cutting pay and benefits.
Many of the travelers contacted for this story shared the assessment of Kenric Scheevel. Scheevel flies about once a month, and says he's been relatively satisfied with Northwest's service during bankruptcy.
"Over the course of the past year, all in all, service has been reasonably adequate," he says. "I think employees probably struggled a bit with morale. But flights have been reasonably on time. Service has been pretty uninterrupted."
Darryl Graverson of San Francisco says most Northwest flights are as good, if not better than, flights on other carriers. His advice for Northwest:
"Stay the way you are and get your stewardesses and onboard staff to be a little more friendly and more helpful. The stewardesses aren't the most friendly."
But Kent Kastler of Iowa has nothing but praise for Northwest.
The retired minister flies NWA to Europe every year. He raves about the airline's new Airbus jets and on-board entertainment system.
"Their prices are reasonable," says Kastler. "And they've kept service well. And I never felt any discontent on the part of the hostesses."
To some Northwest customers, the bankruptcy was invisible.
"To be frank, I didn't notice they were going through bankruptcy," says Paul Midler of Philadelphia.
Midler says Northwest's service has been improving. "Northwest didn't use to be as good as it seems today," he says. "I remember some people used to call it 'Northworst.' I don't know if you ever heard that one."
Northwest may have put that mocking moniker behind it. But history suggests the company's post-bankruptcy customer satisfaction is a toss-up.
"US Air, when it came out of its most recent bankruptcy, customer satisfaction actually improved quite a bit," says Van Amburg. "But the downside is we have also seen United come out of bankruptcy just recently. And their satisfaction plunged."
- Morning Edition, 05/31/2007, 7:20 a.m.