Going to That Great Cocktail Lounge in the Sky

A colorful history of Northwest Airlines and flying’s more glorious days. Northwest Airlines, Inc., Corporate Records (Minnesota Historical Society)

I know middle-aged men who still dress in suit-and-tie for a flight, even if it’s a hop from New York to Boston and has nothing to do with business. They are an ever-more rare breed: Though the Wall Street Journal recently ran an article titled “An Argument for Flying in High Style,” you have a pretty good chance of finding yourself next to a schlub in sweatpants the next time you fly.

The diminishing of style in commercial aviation comes amidst a general souring of that industry’s mood. Glamorous flying belongs to another age, like writing letters and speaking non-ironically. Your Toyota Camry probably brims with more glamour than the tired cylinder shuttling back and forth between Tampa and Pittsburgh.

Jack El-Hai’s new book, Non-Stop: A Turbulent History of Northwest Airlines, is a bright chronicle of one of the nation’s legacy airlines, one that started flying commercially in 1934 and was subsumed by Delta in the fall of 2008, in the midst of the Great Recession. A year later, a Northwest flight (the merger would not be complete for another year) was nearly taken down en route to Detroit by “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

In the end, the Minnesota-based airline that came to be called “Northworst” fell victim to more nimble low-cost carriers like JetBlue, among other ruinous forces. But Non-Stop is generally a sunny book, reminding us of the days when commercial aviation was a symbol of American might and planes were cocktail lounges in the sky, when nearly everybody smoked and nobody forced you to take off your shoes and belt. Full of mid-century cool, this book soars along on a powerful slipstream of nostalgia.

Northwest2 Decades after becoming Northwest's first official ticketed passenger, Byron Webster was still the airline's customer. Northwest Airlines, Inc., Corporate Records (Minnesota Historical Society)

Northwest3 First-class passengers received this and similar menus on flights to Tokyo during the 1970s. Northwest Airlines, Inc., Corporate Records (Minnesota Historical Society)

Northwest3 Brochures market the airline’s connections, schedules, and fares between the Upper Midwest and the Pacific Northwest, 1940s. Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Airports Commission (audio visual materials, Minnesota Historical Society)

Northwest4 Packets of gum distributed to flight-discomfited passengers during the 1940s and ‘50s. NWA History Centre (photography by Robert Fogt)