Midwest Airlines began life in 1948, when Kimberly-Clark began providing air transportation for company executives and engineers between the company's Neenah, Wisconsin headquarters and their mills. Early employee shuttle destinations included Chicago O'Hare, Memphis, and Atlanta's Fulton County Airport.
In 1969, K-C Aviation was born from this, and was dedicated to the maintenance of corporate aircraft.
After the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, Kimberly-Clark and K-C Aviation decided to form a regular scheduled passenger airline, and out of that initiative, Midwest Express started on June 11, 1984. At the time the airline had two DC-9's and 83 employees. Early plans for the airline called for it to serve Appleton, Chicago, and Atlanta. Kimberly-Clark opted against this plan after local resistance over the carrier's desire to serve Atlanta's Fulton County Airport, which is a general aviation airport on the city's west side.
The airline slowly grew by adding Douglas DC-9 aircraft to its fleet. Eventually, Midwest Express served most major Midwestern and Eastern destinations. Their longtime slogan, The Best Care in the Air, represented their inflight product. For many years, all flights featured 2-by-2 leather seating, ample legroom, and inflight meals and cookies. This made the airline popular with business travelers. In addition, Midwest Express operated a sizable executive charter operation with a specially configured DC-9.
In the 1990s, Midwest Express began adding McDonnell Douglas MD-80 aircraft to their fleet. The airline experienced steady growth along with continued profitability. Midwest Express also started their own regional subsidiary, Skyway Airlines, The Midwest Express Connection, to provide commuter airline service to small communities in Wisconsin and the surrounding region. Kimberly-Clark relinquished its ownership in two initial public offerings on September 22, 1995 and May 8, 1996. Its former parent company Midwest Air Group traded on the American Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol "MEH."
Midwest Express also added Midwest Vacations in the 1990s, naming GOGO Worldwide Vacations as the original partner to provide hotel service and later partnering with Mark Travel. Midwest Airlines Vacations continues to operate as a vacation provider.
After fourteen years of profit-making, Midwest Express was affected with serious financial problems after the September 11 terrorist attacks. To return to profitability, the airline made major changes. First, they reconfigured some MD-80 series aircraft into a new 'Saver Service', featuring cloth coach seats in a 2-by-3 arrangement. Saver Service, while decreasing the width of the seats, continued to feature ample legroom. This service was initially offered from the Milwaukee and Kansas City hubs to leisure destinations such as Florida, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Phoenix on McDonnell Douglas MD-80 aircraft. The airline's Signature Service was also affected by the financial difficulties. The signature gourmet meal services, which had been served on china after being cooked on board, were discontinued in 2002.
Midwest Airlines was largely known for its Signature Service all business class seating arrangement, which included leather seats arranged 2-by-2 and fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies.
In early 2008 the airline's publicly traded parent Midwest Air Group was taken over by the private investment firm TPG Capital with a minority investment by Northwest Airlines (now part of Delta Air Lines). The new owners halted airline operations by Midwest's Skyway Airlines subsidiary and contracted out all Midwest Connect flights. Skyway went on to provide ground services for Midwest flights.
On June 23, 2009, Republic Airways acquired Midwest Airlines for $31 million.
A Skyway Airlines Fairchild-Dornier 328JET painted in the colors of Midwest Connect at General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee, WI. SkyWest Airlines aircraft operated under contract to Midwest.
In 2002, the airline made another major change, shortening its name from Midwest Express to simply Midwest. A major reason for the change was the modern association of 'express' with a regional airline, which Midwest was not. At the same time, Midwest's commuter airline subsidiary changed its name from Skyway Airlines, the Midwest Express Connection, to Midwest Connect. In a move to save money on jet fuel, the airline accelerated the replacement of DC-9 aircraft with the Boeing 717. On May 23, 2006, Midwest Airlines accepted one of the last two Boeing 717s delivered in a ceremony with AirTran Airways, who accepted the other 717. Midwest also announced that select MD-80 aircraft would leave the fleet.
In May 2005, Midwest announced a new buy-on-board meal service for customers. The new program was a change from the previous 'In-flight Cafe' and featured chefs and inspiration from the renowned Mader's restaurant. Chocolate chip cookies were baked on the plane and served warm.
Midwest became the largest longstanding operation at Mitchell Airport and served 21 cities non-stop (serving San Antonio only through Kansas City), while their regional partner Skyway Airlines, operating as Midwest Connect, served nearly 30 destinations throughout the Central United States. In the late 1990s, Midwest built a secondary hub at Kansas City International Airport, where nonstop service was operated to 13 cities across the country.
On May 17, 2007, Midwest Airlines signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Northwest Airlines to form a code share agreement with them. The code share agreement added 250 city pairs and 1,000 new flight options for Midwest Airlines customers. Northwest routes that included the Midwest Airlines YX code were destinations beyond Northwest's hubs at Detroit, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Memphis throughout the United States and Canada. Midwest placed its code on Northwest flights from Indianapolis, a Northwest focus city. Additionally, Midwest's code appeared on a number of Northwest-operated flights to Hawaii and Alaska. Routes operated by Midwest Airlines that carried the NW Northwest code were flights that connected at Midwest's Milwaukee and Kansas City hubs, as well as Omaha—at the time, a Midwest focus city. Northwest also code shared on Midwest Airlines-operated flights between Milwaukee and Kansas City to Atlanta, Boston, Hartford, Los Angeles and San Francisco that connected to the Northwest/KLM trans-Atlantic network and trans-Pacific network.
Midwest won more awards for exceptional service in Condé Nast Traveler Magazine than any other U.S. airline, although it had not won an award from Conde Nast Traveler since it ceased to be an independent company.
Signature and Saver service added
On May 29, 2007, Midwest announced the next phase of the company's strategic plan, which offered customers the choice of Signature and Saver seating on all flights. The dual-seating option was previously available on its Boeing 717 fleet, which had since been returned to Boeing. The same amenities were provided to all passengers on either aircraft, including leather seats.
The former configuration of Midwest's Boeing 717 aircraft
40 Signature leather seats, arranged in 10 rows of two-by-two, offering a 36" pitch and providing 2-3 more inches of legroom than the previous Signature seating
59 Saver seats arranged two-by-three which the company claimed are among the roomiest coach seats in the industry
The company projected that the implementation of seating choices would generate $30–35 million in annualized revenue.
The addition of 11 seats on each of the airline's 9 Boeing 717 aircraft would have reduced the airline's unit costs by increasing capacity 12.5%. Had the new seating configuration on the Boeing 717s been in effect in 2006, Midwest Airlines' cost per available seat mile excluding fuel of 7.22 cents would have been 6.77 cents, a 6.3% improvement.
Acquisition by TPG
In December 2006, AirTran Holdings Inc.—owner of AirTran Airways—made public that in December 2005 it had approached the Board of Directors of Midwest Air Group—owner of Midwest Airlines and Midwest Connect—and had asked the board to negotiate a sale of the company. That AirTran offer in 2005 was rebuffed by Midwest's board, which also rebuffed a second offer in late 2006. In December 2006, AirTran disclosed the rejection of both offers in hopes of bringing shareholder pressure on Midwest's board to reconsider, which the board recommended that shareholders reject.
On August 12, 2007, it was announced that AirTran had lost the bid for Midwest. A private equity group, headed by TPG Capital and including Northwest Airlines, purchased Midwest and turned the airline into a privately funded company. The inclusion of Northwest in the investing partners required anti-trust review from the United States Department of Justice, which reviews all airline mergers.
On August 14, 2007, AirTran increased its offer to the equivalent of $16.25 a share, slightly more than the $16 a share from TPG Capital investors group. However, Midwest announced TPG would increase its offer to $17 per share and a definitive agreement had been reached late on August 16, 2007.
On August 17, 2007 TPG and Northwest Airlines finalized their bid for Midwest with the final offer of $17 per share and a total deal of $450 million.
On February 1, 2008, Midwest Air Group announced that the US Department of Justice had cleared the acquisition of Midwest by TPG Capital and Northwest. This finalized the acquisition; trading of Midwest Air Group on the American Stock Exchange ceased at the end of the trading day on January 31, 2008, and stockholders in Midwest received the agreed-upon $17 per share. This ended the independent existence of Midwest Airlines.
In accordance with the rest of the airline industry during the oil price increases since 2003, Midwest Airlines was forced to cut back services. To do this, Midwest Airlines announced their intent to ground the twelve remaining McDonnell Douglas MD-80 jets in its fleet. According to the company, the MD-80 was "a very fuel inefficient airplane and at the cost of fuel today it's just become economically infeasible to operate these planes." The MD-80s, and the crews that operated them, left Midwest in late 2008.
TPG Capitals Midwest Air Group failed to pay a $3.3 million receivable due the outsourced regional airline replacement for Skyway Airlines which previously d/b/a as Midwest Connect. SkyWest was due the amount by June 30, 2008 forcing SkyWest Airlines to record a full reserve and corresponding reduction in revenue during the second quarter of that year.
Additional changes were announced on September 3, 2008, when the airline announced that it had raised $60 million from TPG, Northwest Airlines, and Republic Airways Holdings. As part of the outsourcing deal, Republic Airlines is operating 12 Embraer 170 aircraft under the Midwest Airlines brand, though Midwest had the option to convert the aircraft into a long-term lease and operate them directly. The airline also reached an agreement with Boeing Capital to return 16 Boeing 717s, leaving it at the time with a fleet of only 9 aircraft.
Acquisition by Republic Airways Holdings
On June 23, 2009, Republic Airways Holdings, Inc announced would acquire Midwest Airlines for $31 million. The deal closed on July 30. Midwest became a wholly owned subsidiary of Republic Airways and continued to operate under current branding. The Midwest Airlines FAA operating certificate expired on November 3, 2009. The acquisition by Republic was 22 months after TPG and Northwest Airlines paid $450 million for Midwest. The total loss of investment by TPG and Northwest was 93% or $419 million.
On September 3, 2008, Midwest Airlines announced its plan to outsource all of its flight operations to Republic Airways. Republic will operate 12 new 76-seat Embraer 170 jets under the Midwest Connect name while Midwest will return all of its 25 Boeing 717 planes under a lease renegotiation. While this change caused the additional layoffs bringing the total of pink-slipped Midwest pilots to nearly 300 and total employee cuts for the year to 1,850, Midwest indicated that it hoped to begin operating these new planes itself with Midwest crews in 8–12 months form that time.
The Midwest branch of the Air Line Pilots Association launched a campaign protesting the Midwest outsourcing plan shortly after it was announced. They argued that the pilots had already made significant concessions to help Midwest Airlines survive and that the company's new contract offers represented draconian demands.
Merge into Frontier
In early 2010, parent company Republic Airways Holdings announced that its Frontier and Midwest Airlines brands would merge by October 2011. On April 13, Republic announced that the Frontier Airlines name would be kept. Parts of the Midwest brand were incorporated into the Frontier brand as part of the merger, namely the iconic Midwest cookie and the slogan of Midwest Airlines, "The Best Care In The Air."
On October 1, 2010, midwestairlines.com was shut down for future reservations (besides frequent flyer tickets).
On October 28, 2010, midwestairlines.com was shut down. Users were redirected to www.frontierairlines.com.
Midwest's YX code was retired in early November 2010.
Midwest Airlines' frequent flyer program was called Midwest Miles. They maintained one airport lounge, the Best Care Club at their Milwaukee hub in the D Concourse, until its closure on May 31, 2012.
While Midwest was not a member of any airline alliance, Midwest Miles were redeemable in the Delta Air Lines SkyMiles program, and vice versa. As of 2006, Northwest route maps showed Midwest as a partner airline and Northwest (now Delta) pulled its non-hub flights out of Milwaukee.
Midwest Miles was unusual in that it had links to the Amtrak program. Midwest Miles members could transfer blocks of 5,000 miles (8,000 km), up to a maximum of 25,000 miles per year to Amtrak's program. Amtrak points can be used for travel on Amtrak and United Airlines (ex Continental Airlines).
Screenshot of Savethecookie campaign
A defining feature of the airline is the chocolate chip cookies baked on the planes and served near the end of flights. The airline began serving the cookies after a former employee experimented with different snacks on an empty leg of a charter flight.
The cookie was featured in Midwest advertisements, such as the "savethecookie" campaign in opposition to the proposed and failed AirTran takeover. The cookie is served during professional baseball games at Kauffman Stadium, as well as Bucks basketball and Admirals hockey games at Milwaukee's Bradley Center.
The cookie outlived the brand as it was served on Frontier Airlines flights. The Midwest Brand cookie dough at Sendik's Food Markets in the Milwaukee area will be branded as Frontier cookie dough.
Frontier Airlines, the carrier that took over Midwest, announced in 2012 that the airline would discontinue their cookie service as a cost-per-value cut, and instead added snacks that are Colorado-based.
Fleet at time of merger into Frontier
As of November 2009, Frontier Airlines pilots and crew operated 5 Airbus A319-100 aircraft for Midwest Airlines. All former Midwest Airlines Boeing 717 fleet were retired on November 3, 2009. The majority of Midwest Airlines routes were operated by Midwest Connect through outsourcing, allowing Midwest to advertise and maintain a route system similar to what existed prior to Midwest Air Groups takeover by Texas Pacific Group: The Boeing 717 aircraft were replaced by the Airbus A319 flown by Frontier Airlines and 15 Embraer 190 aircraft flown by Republic Airlines. 10 of these aircraft were purchased from US Airways
During the merger with Frontier Airlines, it was announced that the Midwest Airlines fleet of Embraers would not be merged into Frontier Airlines operating certificate, but the two types of aircraft would be aircrewed and operated separately by the two airlines just as before the merger.