Northwest’s passage to China

From a purely selfish point of view, I think the best news to come out of Wu Yi’s visit to Washington was a deal to add 13 more daily flights to China by US carriers by 2012. Currently, there are only 10 routes per day, and so the competition for new ones is always ferocious. For example, last year, the FAA awarded a Beijing-Washington, D.C. route to United Airlines after a bitter contest between carriers that included online petitions with thousands of signatories.

It’s not entirely clear to me how the FAA chooses carriers and routes, but my impression is that the agency evaluates the proposals on the basis of whether they fulfill an actual market or political need. Thus, during the last round, a proposed China route originating from Dallas/Forth Worth didn’t make the cut, but one connecting the two national capitols did.

That’s all fine and good. Markets and politics should play a role in the choice of new routes. But I think that there’s a role for other criteria, as well: namely, past performance and customer service by the bidding airlines.

So I sincerely hope that the FAA does not award Northwest Airlines any of the new China routes until it makes a concerted effort to improve its services on its current China routes (recent reports in the Minneapolis Star Tribune suggest that Northwest would like the new routes very much, indeed). Two areas of needed improvement:

1. Northwest currently operates a Detroit-Shanghai round-trip, and though it has the right to operate it non-stop, the flight stops in Tokyo, where passengers must disembark the plane, go through airport security, and then find the gate for the new plane. This is not a non-stop, and in my opinion, if Northwest wants receive the right to new routes, it should have to operate this one as non-stop.

2. Northwest’s daily flights in and out of Shanghai’s Pudong Airport are flown on aging 747s that look like they could have been used as the set for Airplane (1980). The upholstery is often worn and ragged, headphone jacks barely work, and the flight attendants … well, I’ll leave that for another post. These same planes are used for – in my experience – the Tokyo routes to Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and Detroit (the aforementioned “direct” flight between Shanghai and Detroit). Unlike most other international carriers and routes- including those run by Northwest’s competitors – the 747s do not have seat-back in-flight entertainment for coach passengers. In fact, I’ve found that Chinese airlines operate newer aircraft on their China-US than the ones that Northwest operates!

In other words, Northwest is shamelessly milking these routes for every last penny of trans-Pacific revenue, customer comfort be damned. Profiteering is the right of all American airlines, and lord knows they do it with impunity.

So, just this once, couldn’t the FAA exercise its right to take into consideration ever aspect of an airline’s service record when awarding new business? Theoretically, at least, the agency should be choosing the routes on the basis of what passengers need – comfort, quality, safety, and convenience – and not on the basis of what the airlines need. Naive, I know, but as a Northwest frequent flier, I can hope.