Like it or not, Northwest is America's fourth largest airline
, on the heels of American
, and United
It was founded in 1926 as Northwest Airways, a two-biplane air mail service between St. Paul, MN and Chicago, and began passenger service in 1927, carrying a whopping 106 people! The next year, they became one of America's first international carriers when they started service from Fargo to Winnipeg, a service that only lasted for three months due to opposition from the Canadian government. However, their services came to an abrupt halt in 1934, when FDR cut off all air mail contracts in the United States. Northwest Airlines was incorporated shortly afterward, and bought back the Chicago-St. Paul route award from the government.
After World War II, Northwest used some of its government contract money to expand its services, starting transcon service between New York and Seattle. Their big break, however, came in 1947, when they received clearance from the government to start service from the U.S. to Japan, Korea, China, and the Philippines: in 1960, they began Douglas DC-8 service from New York City to Tokyo. While political problems forced the suspension of Chinese and Korean service during the 1950's, the Pacific is still Northwest's strongest international market today, and they have something approaching a hub in Tokyo.
By the 1970's, Northwest Orient, as it was then called, was the most profitable airline in the United States. When deregulation arrived in 1978, they were in an excellent financial position to begin trans-Atlantic service, starting with Copenhagen and Stockholm. In 1979, they purchased Minneapolis's other home-grown airline, North Central Airlines, and became Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport's hegemon. In 1986, they expanded even further by buying West Coast giant Republic Airlines.
To finance this breakneck rate of expansion, though, Northwest had to sell itself to a collection of private investors, among them KLM, in 1989. In 1993, Northwest and KLM received the go-ahead from the FAA to start what would become the world's first airline alliance, later inviting a struggling Continental Airlines to join. Northwest, KLM, and Continental began selling each other's flights and sharing each other's VIP lounges and frequent flyer miles, to the point where they could almost be considered, from an air traveller's standpoint, to be the same airline. This alliance spawned several larger competitors, one of which, the SkyTeam alliance led by Delta and Air France, subsumed the NW-KLM-CO alliance around the same time as Air France's merger with KLM.
Today, Northwest has three major hubs at Minneapolis, Detroit Metropolitan Airport (the "Northwest WorldGateway"), and Memphis International Airport, with a smaller hub at Narita serving as a connecting funnel for all of Northwest's service to the Far East and Micronesia. Northwest is currently the #3 airline in Japan.
Northwest's fleet consists of Boeing 747s on transpacific trunk routes and cargo runs, Airbus A330s on most transoceanic routes, Boeing 757s and Airbus A320s on major US domestic routes, and a large number of old Douglas DC-9s which still see service on short hops to various cities. Northwest has a growing number of regional jets which are gradually displacing the DC-9s from the fleet, and will be taking deliveries of Boeing 787s in the future to expand its international network.