Looking back, September 20,1985 was a seminal day for me and my family as we tossed off the security blanket of a naval career and leapt into the unpredictable business of commercial aviation. The airlines were booming at that time, and fortunately, three different outfits offered me employment. Northwest Airlines, based in St. Paul, Minnesota, was the best fit so that’s where I headed. I left my family behind on a sunny, 85-degree day in San Diego and travelled to the Twin Cities. On check-in day at Northwest - still officially summer, mind you - the Midwest sky darkened and promptly unloaded three inches of wet snow. Was that possibly an omen of things to come?
Northwest was a unique airline. The company was not very large − comprised of roughly 2200 pilots then - but NWA held an asset coveted by the bigger carriers: its extensive and very lucrative Pacific route system. When United took over Pan American’s Pacific operation in late '85, that event seemed to trigger a series of other mergers: Northwest purchased Republic; Delta grabbed Western; USAir hooked up with Piedmont… and the list went on. Does anyone remember the names Ozark, Air Cal or PSA? How about proud pioneers like TWA and Eastern? Sadly, all went the way of rotary dial phones and leisure suits.
Industry consolidation continues today. United and Continental have joined, as have USAir and American. Five years have passed since I traded my steel-blue Northwest uniform for the double-breasted look of Delta. Instead of that tight group of 2200 aviators, I’m now part of a globe-circling enterprise with nearly 13,000 pilots. The last 30 years have been a turbulent ride for sure - with labor strikes, two mergers, numerous pay cuts, a bankruptcy, and thousands of nights away from home. Bottom line, though, it's been a great job and I'd do it all over again in a New York minute.
Next month: Aviation technology advances during the last three decades