Head Count

Northwest does Vanguard: Some people just know how to count
Craig Lassig

Plunked down at the end of the red concourse at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, in faded jeans, loafers, and an bright aqua jacket, the man looks like a tourist on his way to somewhere else. He leans back, spreading his broad shoulders across the seats behind him. His demeanor and the duffel bag parked next to him suggest a man waiting for his seat row to be called. But after the Northwest Airlines flights to Dallas-Ft. Worth at gate 36 and Atlanta at gate 37 have boarded and departed, he's still sitting there.

He rises, stretches like a sky-weary traveler, and heads down the concourse--seemingly intent on returning to the main terminal. But no. He positions himself in a new chair under a TWA logo, no more than 100 feet from his old perch. Like his last seat, this one affords him a clear view of gate 35, where a Vanguard Airlines flight will soon depart. He's not getting on that plane, either. Unbeknownst to the passengers about to board the next Vanguard budget flight out, he's tallying them up, as he does all of the airline's riders five days a week, week in, week out--on counter intelligence detail.

The man, Greg, declines to give his last name and politely explains that he'll have to leave the talking about his job up to public relations at Northwest. He did chat recently with folks poking around for Vanguard though, which then profiled him in The Daily Zoom, its internal newsletter. According to that account, Greg has been keeping track of Vanguard passengers for two-and-a-half years (other part-timers work other shifts); by now, he has become so skilled at it that he simply keeps count in his head. The Zoom also reported that in the past he has caught the eye of suspicious airport security and was made to reveal the true nature of his job.

Vanguard is both amused and flattered that their little airline merits such close personal attention from the likes of Northwest. "Internally, a lot of people think it's hilarious," says Vanguard's Russell Winter, vice president of marketing and planning. "For us it just gives an indication of how far they're willing to go to make life hard for us. It just seems like a very strange thing to do."

Sure, the airline business is competitive, but Eagan-based Northwest dwarfs Vanguard in every respect. Kansas City-based Vanguard is still just a young punk in the industry: The company was launched in December 1994 and began flying out of Minneapolis in May 1995. Its entire fleet consists of nine 737s; Northwest currently deploys 415 planes. Vanguard serves a mere eight U.S. cities--a far cry from Northwest's 107 domestic and international destinations. According to the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC), Vanguard--with eight daily departures from the Twin Cities--has no local gates of its own, and so is hosted by TWA, which leases three; Northwest controls 53 of the airport's 70 gates. Judged strictly on sales, Vanguard is roughly 1/100th the size of Northwest. Its 1997 revenue was about $81 million, and it remains on course to break the $100 million mark this year; last year Northwest reported revenue of more than $10.2 billion.

So why does Northwest insist on studying their tiny rival so closely?

Northwest spokesperson Marta Laughlin concedes that eyeballing the competition's flow of passengers is an "archaic measure" but a necessary one, because Northwest can't obtain as much information as they'd like through Computer Reservations System (CRS) information, which is often used in the airline industry to track the volume of business among competitors. The data, in turn, help airlines strategize about routes, frequency of flights, fares, and other competitive issues.

Winter says he believes Northwest could get the information it needs through CRS figures, as it could from the monthly passenger counts all airlines doing business in the Twin Cities must file with the MAC. Those figures for 1997 show that Northwest handled 82 percent of the airport's 27.5 million passengers, while Vanguard carried a little more than 1 percent. Then again, Laughlin points out, the numbers don't tell the story Northwest is after--that is, a breakdown of just how many bodies are aboard each of Vanguard's flights. And so the head count by hand continues.

Lest one believe Northwest's tactics amount to picking on someone under its weight class, Laughlin argues that Vanguard, like other bantams it keeps track of around the nation, is "as viable a competitor as American [Airlines]; they're not less important because they're small. I'm sure people count Vanguard in other markets that they serve." To which Winter responds that he's unaware of any such practices in other cities Vanguard flies through. Still, it's no secret that small airlines can nip at the heels of the giants: Vanguard attributed about a third of its third-quarter profit of $3.4 million to the Northwest pilots' strike, a result of the exodus of stranded passengers to the thrifty flier.

While Greg does his best to look the part of the leisure traveler, Laughlin says the counter intelligence measure is no covert operation: "He doesn't hide or anything. There's nothing mysterious about it." She adds that Northwest retains its human abaci through "a plain old temp agency" because it's "just a good way to employ someone to count."

For its part, Vanguard takes a be-our-guest attitude. "I don't know how much they pay that guy," Winter chuckles. "But I certainly know that we could put someone to much better use."

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