Airlines don’t build themselves. It takes leadership, vision, and ingenuity to make a carrier great. Last Tuesday, former Northwest Airlines chief Donald W. Nyrop passed away at the age of 98. Over his long tenure at Northwest, those were exactly the qualities he displayed, transforming the the airline from a failed regional mail carrier to the one of the industry’s most profitable and safest airlines.
A Wall Street Journal obituary does such a nice job telling his story, I am going to quote excerpts from it verbatim:
Mr. Nyrop…was a determined cost-cutter who made profits even when pilots went on strike.
Despite a background as a federal regulator, he early weaned Northwest from federal subsidies. It was known in the industry as "the time Northwest shot Santa Claus."
He cultivated a crusty reputation and often seemed at war with Northwest’s pilots and machinists, who went on five lengthy walkouts in the 1960s and 1970s.
Mr. Nyrop stressed simplicity, while building one of the most modern jet fleets. At one point, frustrated by the high cost of baggage-handling equipment, he ordered his mechanics to construct replacements out of farm machinery.
While other airlines had layers of bureaucracy, Mr. Nyrop had 16 vice presidents who reported directly to him, no executive vice presidents, and no committees. The airline’s Minneapolis headquarters was a grim, hangar-sized building Mr. Nyrop ordered built without windows in 1961, ostensibly to save energy. One employee told The Wall Street Journal in 1977 that it was better than what it replaced, "an unairconditioned early sod house."…
The son of a banker in Elgin, Neb., Mr. Nyrop journeyed to Washington, D.C., to attend law school at night while working as a General Accounting Office auditor. After passing the bar, he joined the Civil Aeronautics Authority in 1938.
During World War II, Mr. Nyrop served as an officer in the Air Transport Command of the U.S. Army, a job that gave him experience much like operating an airline. After the war, he returned to Washington, where in 1950 he was named administrator of Civil Aeronautics, a position from which he directed the development of new safety technologies like runway-approach lighting. In 1951, in 1951, he became chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board, which regulated air routes and prices.
Three years later, Mr Nyrop left Washington to become president of Northwest. Under his leadership, the airline secured key routes that set the stage for its rise, such as the "Great Circle Route" over the North Pole to Tokyo, and a New York-Chicago route that gave it a northern transcontinental reach…
In the 1970s, Northwest’s workers had the highest productivity in the industry, and the company was profitable for each of Mr. Nyrop’s 24 years at the helm. The airline remained profitable through worker walkouts because it was the biggest beneficiary of the industry’s "Mutual Aid Pact," established to make payments to strike-bound airlines.
A few years after he retired as chairman in 1978, the doors were still off the stalls in the men’s room, a measure Mr. Nyrop had instituted to prevent lingering. But work was under way on new headquarters with atriums, carpeting and windows.
While labor harmony is always preferred, Nyrop’s leadership-style must be given credit. The results speak for themselves. May he rest in peace.