To appreciate this edition of the Nostalgia Corner, you should find a plate of the best chocolate chip cookies to enjoy as you read. If you have flown Midwest at any point in their history, you already know why. Between 1983 and 2010, Midwest was a well-known carrier based out of, well, the Midwest. With a simple blue-and-gold livery and fleet of Maddog aircraft, you can imagine why I was interested in covering them for this third edition.
The early days of Midwest date back to 1948. The well-known personal care company Kimberly-Clark launched an air shuttle for executives from their base at current-day Appleton International Airport to other mill locations across the region.
Being one of the first large corporations to venture into aviation, their in-house maintenance grew in strength, eventually forming K-C Aviation. The business became palatable enough that in 1969, the maintenance side of K-C Aviation broke off into an independent operation. K-C Aviation would still service the shuttle operation, but the two were no longer a single business entity.
Fast forward to 1978, specifically following the passing of the Airline Deregulation Act. Now an open market, Kimberly-Clark sought to take their successful business foray into aviation so far and start an airline of their own. This decision was a joint venture between the now-independent firm K-C Aviation and Kimberly-Clark.
In 1984, the airline was formed as Midwest Express. At first, Kimberly-Clark desired to launch service from Appleton to Chicago-O'Hare and Atlanta. Complications arose when the airline could not begin service at Atlanta-Fulton County Airport. The airport, a General Aviation field outside of Atlanta, needed the infrastructure to establish scheduled commercial air service. Eventually, the airline decided on Milwaukee to open an operating hub.
The fleet originated with two Douglas DC-9-10s, the shortest variant. As the airline grew, it introduced the slightly larger DC-9-30, maintaining a common fleet type. By 1989, Midwest wanted to expand its reach to the West Coast and Florida. However, they could not do this with the limited range of the DC-9. Thus, two McDonnell Douglas MD-88 aircraft were delivered in January 1990.
1989 also saw the launch of Midwest Express Connection, a regional affiliate set up to feed their hub in Milwaukee. Operated then by Skyway Airlines Beech 1900D aircraft, this affiliate provided several smaller communities in Wisconsin and the surrounding region with access to air service. This regional affiliate would grow to a fleet mix of Dornier 328 Jets, Embraer Regional Jets, and a handful of Bombardier CRJ-100s. Regional contracts were also awarded to other carriers, such as SkyWest Airlines and Chautauqua Airlines, complementing their primary agreement with Skyway Airlines.
Kimberly-Clark, deciding to let Midwest Express live free on the market, relinquished its ownership through two Initial Public Offerings, one in September 1995 and the other in May 1996. The two carriers, Midwest Express and Midwest Express Connect, combined to form Midwest Air Group and traded on the American Stock Exchange under “MEH.”
In 2002, the airline underwent a minor rebranding, shortening its name to Midwest Airlines. During this time, regional carriers were sprouting nationwide, and most were using the phrase “Express” to affiliate with their parent organization. To avoid confusion with their purpose, Midwest removed the term from their name, including rebranding their regional operation as Midwest Connect.
By the time the early-2000s came around, Midwest had accelerated the retirement of their DC-9 fleet in favor of the Boeing 717. The aircraft, designed as a replacement for DC-9 operators, offered a significant economic improvement. Midwest and AirTran were the primary users of the type in the United States, and Hawaiian Airlines for their inter-island network.
Unfortunately, after 9/11, a slower period in travel coincided with the introduction of several other aircraft types directly competing with the Boeing 717. After failing to win an order from Air Canada to replace their fleet of DC-9s, Boeing chose to end production of the type. The last two aircraft were ceremoniously delivered to both AirTran and Midwest on the same day, May 23, 2006.
Midwest’s success made them an attractive acquisition target, and AirTran Airways approached Midwest to discuss a merger. The prospect made a lot of sense as both carriers had significant synergy. Midwest and AirTran operated the Boeing 717 without much overlap in their networks. AirTran focused on East Coast cities with primary hubs in Atlanta and Baltimore, while Midwest concentrated on markets in the Midwest and West. Together, they would combine into a formidable carrier.
The only problem was that there was competition. Following two rejected offers from AirTran in 2007, a private equity group headed by TPG Capital and Northwest Airlines threw their hat in the ring, countering AirTran’s bid for the carrier. After several offers back and forth, it was announced that TPG Capital would win the bid, offering $17 per share.
Things went differently than planned. After failing to pay $3.3 million to Skyway Airlines, TPG Capital and Northwest raised an additional $60 million by including Republic Airways Holdings in the mix. The carrier would restructure to include Embraer 170 aircraft operated under Midwest branding, returning 16 Boeing 717s to their owner, leaving them with nine.
2009 announced that Republic Airways Holdings would purchase TPG Capital’s Midwest Air Group for $31 million. The carrier would initially operate as a subsidiary of Republic Airways under its current branding. Not two years after acquiring Midwest for $450 million, TPG Capital left its business venture with a net loss of $419 million. The Midwest Airlines operating certificate lapsed in November 2009, marking the end of an era.
Now only operating a fleet of twelve Embraer 170 aircraft, Midwest announced that all flights would be outsourced to parent company Republic Airways beginning in late 2008. Midwest further stated that they hoped to lease back the aircraft with Midwest crews within a year, including adding more Embraer 190s. Skeptical, the remaining Midwest pilots, with their union, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), attempted to fight the decision.
In 2010, Republic Airways Holdings finalized the end of the Midwest brand by merging it with Frontier Airlines, another airline within the organization. After the consolidation, the final airline would operate under the Frontier name. Midwest’s brand lived on briefly until 2013, as Republic aircraft were slowly repainted and reassigned to other carriers.
Photo: Conde Nast Traveler.
Midwest, antimonious to several airlines today, prided themselves on how they treated their customers. Their trademark slogan, “The Best Care in the Air,” lived on even after the merger with Frontier (somewhat ironic considering how we know Frontier today). Their business success is primarily tied to their favorable reputation amongst travelers since point-to-point flying had not reached the levels we see today; most people had to connect through a hub.
Of course, who can forget their cookies? Baked in flight, the cabin atmosphere was always uplifted following each fresh batch. Frontier also continued this tradition past the conclusion of the Midwest brand, however, ending the free cookies in 2012. Over a decade past its extinction, the one trademark people most remember Midwest for was the fresh chocolate chip cookies.
The cookies had originated when an employee experimented on the empty leg of a charter flight. As outreach in their home cities, these cookies were even offered at professional sporting events such as for the Kansas City Royals and Milwaukee Bucks. You could even purchase the cookie dough from local area Milwaukee stores until Frontier discontinued the product.
With hubs in Milwaukee, Kansas City, and for a brief period, Omaha, Midwest was an attractive option for customers traveling wherever they called home. While never obtaining conglomerate status, they did come a long way in earning prominence in the marketplace. For 14 years, Midwest grew mostly organically and remained profitable until the days following 9/11, which was a systematic issue.
While the MD-88 offered them extended range to the West Coast, they only took on additional aircraft of the type in the late 1990s. Midwest sustained extended-range service with the same two planes for approximately eight years - a remarkable feat. The fleet of MD-80 aircraft would max out at thirteen before being retired in March 2003.
Seeking a premium product, instead of the standard 3 x 2 seating configuration found on DC-9s, the interiors were outfitted in a 2 x 2 format, including leather seats. When you think about how uneconomical the DC-9 and MD-80 were, this sacrifice speaks wonders to the business success of Midwest.
In 2007, Midwest began to retrofit their cabins with a Signature and Saver option instead of the original 88-seat configuration. This model helped Midwest compete with the low-cost carriers and protected their community of loyal travelers in both Milwaukee and Kansas City. This configuration would remain until the Boeing 717 aircraft were ultimately returned.
Later that year, Midwest reached a Memorandum of Understanding to codeshare through Northwest’s network. This MoU gave Midwest customers 250 city pairs and 1,000 more flights to book. The selection of Northwest made much sense, being that Northwest also provided hubs in the Midwest via Minneapolis-St. Paul, Detroit, and Memphis. For a period of time, Midwest also allowed Milwaukee and Kansas City passengers to connect to Virgin Atlantic flights in Boston.
Unfortunately, not much is left today of what we know as Midwest Airlines. After losing out in the acquisition pursuit, AirTran opened a hub in Milwaukee in 2009 that grew further after Midwest dissolved shortly after. Today, many of these routes they implemented to replace Midwest routes are served by Southwest Airlines. The same can be said for Kansas City, however, less for Omaha.
There is an attempted re-launch in the works, however much remains to be seen, particularly whether or not the airline makes it off the ground. Originally set to be operated by wet-leased aircraft from Elite Airways, the carrier is now undergoing restructuring, and the resumption of operations remains in question. There are not many other comparable carriers that offer 50-seat wet-lease options similar to that of Elite. Should the airline launch, it will be based out of Milwaukee.
Elite even went as far as to paint an aircraft, N96EA, in future Midwest Express colors. The aircraft has since been repainted back to Elite "colors."
Former Midwest Connect Embraer 170s still fly today for Republic. Most of their returned Boeing 717s went on to fly for MexicanaClick, a carrier that ceased operations in 2010. The Boeing 717 has become a rare sight, with Hawaiian and Delta the only current operators in the United States.
One McDonnell Douglas MD-82 lives today as N682RW operating for Olympia Aviation, known for transporting Detroit’s professional sports teams. Unfortunately, her days are also limited as she is set to be replaced by a former Miami Air International Boeing 737-800.
N682RW in Bedford, MA.
What came of K-C Aviation, Kimberly-Clark’s maintenance operation in Appleton, is also worth noting. In 1998, Gulfstream Aerospace acquired its locations at Appleton (ATW), Dallas-Love (DAL), and Westfield-Barnes (BAF). Currently, these locations still serve as critical locations for Gulfstream. Kimberly-Clark's corporate fleet is also possibly tied to this with two Gulfstream G550s.
Thanks for tuning in to this edition of the Nostalgia Corner. Be on the lookout for more material coming your way very shortly!