Richard H. Anderson

Chief executive officer, Northwest Airlines

Nationality: American.

Born: 1956, in Galveston, Texas.

Education: University of Houston, BS, 1979; South Texas College of Law, JD, 1982.

Family: Son of Richard Anderson.

Career: Harris County Criminal Court, Texas, 1978–1987, chief counsel, then assistant district attorney; Continental Airlines, 1987–1990, staff vice president and deputy general counsel; Northwest Airlines, 1990–1994, vice president and deputy general counsel; 1994–1996, senior vice president of labor relations; 1997–1998, senior vice president of technical operations and airport affairs; 1998, executive vice president of technical operations, flight operations, and airport affairs; 1998–2001, executive vice president and COO of facilities, airport affairs, and regulatory compliance; 2001–, CEO.

Address: Northwest Airlines, 2700 Lone Oak Parkway, Eagan, Minnesota 55121;

■ In February 2001 Richard Anderson was appointed chief executive officer of the holding company NWA and its principal subsidiary Northwest Airlines. The promotion recognized Anderson's earlier achievements in making Northwest the country's most on-time airline in the 1990s and also his role in expanding the airline's key facilities in Detroit. The early focus at Northwest during Anderson's tenure as CEO was on managing the effects of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States. By aggressively cutting costs while also attending to Northwest's problematic labor relations, Anderson averted the need to file for bankruptcy protection, as other major carrier networks were forced to do in 2002.


Anderson was born and raised in Galveston, Texas. After his parents died when he was 19, Anderson put himself

Richard H. Anderson. AP/Wide World Photos.
Richard H. Anderson.
AP/Wide World Photos

through college and law school by working as a laborer in the building and construction industries. Between 1978 and 1987 Anderson worked as the chief counsel and then as the assistant district attorney in the Harris County Criminal Court in Texas. He moved to the air-transportation industry in 1987, working as staff vice president and general counsel for Continental.


In 1990 Anderson began working for Northwest Airlines as vice president and general counsel. Over the next seven years he gained a breadth of experience at Northwest in the areas of operations, staff relations, and legal problem solving.

In early 1997 Anderson was appointed executive vice president in charge of technical operations, flight operations, and airport affairs. A year later he was appointed chief operating officer, with responsibility for facilities, airport affairs, and regulatory compliance. In these roles he considerably improved fleet maintenance, working especially closely with Steve Gorman, the manager of engine maintenance. Together with Gorman, Anderson significantly reduced the airline's backlog of repairs and increased the number of Northwest planes in service, resulting in improved performance and a reduction in flight cancellations. Northwest was deemed the most on-time airline of the seven major American network carriers during the 1990s based on statistics compiled by the Department of Transportation.


Anderson was appointed CEO of Northwest Airlines in February 2001. Simultaneously, Douglas Steenland was appointed president, and the two would effectively maintain a collaborative style of leadership. In October 2001 Anderson was appointed to the airline's board of directors.

As the newly appointed CEO, Anderson promised to continue his predecessor John Dasburg's focus upon product integrity and customer service. In February 2002 Anderson opened the new $1.2 billion midfield terminal at Detroit's Metro Airport, a project he had been instrumental in initiating in 1994. The new terminal offered enhanced capacity and faster connection times, enabling Northwest Airlines to expand its already extensive service to Asia and to increase its competitiveness among business travelers. With a state-of-theart architectural design, the new facility offered a change in image from the previous terminal and was intended to generate improved customer experiences.

At a company known for low employee morale, Anderson was committed to improving labor relations. In an interview broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio, Anderson extended an olive branch to Northwest labor unions, saying, "We have to go down the road today of building relationships, and you have to build those relationships while you're not in negotiations" (June 18, 2001). He thereafter undertook a nationwide tour of Northwest sites to establish rapport with employees and hear their concerns. In April 2001 he successfully negotiated a new contract with the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, which represented 9,795 Northwest mechanics, cleaners, and custodians. This resolution ended a dispute that had begun in 1996.

After the September 11, 2001, terrorist hijacking of four jetliners, Anderson strove to balance his commitment to labor relations with the pressing need to reduce operating costs. In an interview with the New York Times , Anderson said of Northwest's stance, "In the last two and a half years, we've been the most aggressive in the industry in terms of getting out in front of the problems that we faced. It's necessitated some very hard decisions" (August 7, 2003). Anderson failed to get union support for wage and benefit concessions to the tune of $950 million by July 2003, which the company had claimed would be necessary to stave off bankruptcy proceedings. Despite this threat Northwest did not subsequently file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, as United and U.S. Airways had done in 2002. By restructuring in order to reduce operating costs, Anderson and Steenland eliminated 17,000 jobs from the payroll and cut $1.6 billion in annual expenses between 2001 and 2003.

Anderson emerged as an industry leader in talks with the federal government regarding financial assistance for the air-transportation industry in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. He helped develop tighter security mandates with the Federal Aviation Administration and was part of the Bush administration's Airport Safety Committee, which was formed in the days following the attacks. In these talks Anderson sought federal government assistance in the form of payment of increased security costs, reductions in the taxes and fees imposed on airlines, and increased flexibility for mergers and alliances in order to promote sales. His role as industry spokesperson was expanded when he was appointed chairman of the executive committee of the Air Transport Association in December 2002.

Anderson's dual attendance to operating performance and labor relations improved Northwest's public image and commercial performance. In July 2002 Standard & Poor's deemed Northwest to be one of the two most stable megacarriers in the industry; Anderson's leadership in the wake of the 9/11 attacks was an important factor in this judgment. Joel Denney, the analyst with the Minneapolis-based U.S. Bancorp, Piper Jaffray, praised the performances of both Anderson and the Continental Airlines CEO Gordon Bethune in turning around the fortunes of their respective companies. Speaking to the Minneapolis–St. Paul Business Journal in 2002, Denney said of the pair, "It's not that they knew the future, but they prepared for the unknown" (July 26, 2002).

As CEO of Northwest, Anderson was committed to involvement in the Minnesota and Michigan communities, serving on the boards of Hamline University of St. Paul, Minnesota, and Medtronic, among numerous other local and business organizations. In 2000 he was appointed first chairman of the Minnesota Business Leadership Network.


Anderson was known for his open and personable managerial style. As CEO he fostered good staff relations by encouraging direct, informal communication among all Northwest staff. His work e-mail address was simply "Richard." His accessible approach helped him to initiate and maintain the dialogue necessary between unions and management to resolve the company's labor disputes.

Calmness under pressure was another characteristic of Anderson's executive leadership. After the opening of the Detroit midfield terminal in 2002, the Knight Ridder-Tribune Business News journalist Tom Walsh commented on Anderson's visible pride and excitement with respect to the new facility. Such a response was unusual for the business leader better known, as described by Walsh, for being "even keeled, unflappable, and easygoing" (February 25, 2002).

See also entry on Northwest Airlines Inc. in International Directory of Company Histories .

sources for further information

Carey, Susan, "The Thrifty Get Thriftier: Northwest Airlines Has Long Had a Reputation as a Cost Cutter; Now It Needs to Cut Some More," Wall Street Journal , May 10, 2004.

Maynard, Micheline, "NW Chief Says Airline Will Not File for Bankruptcy," New York Times , August 7, 2003.

Tellijohn, Andrew, "Overpaid CEOs Underpaid: Richard Anderson; Bad Year Takes Toll on Anderson, NWA," Minneapolis–St. Paul Business Journal , July 26, 2002, p. 15.

Walsh, Tom, Detroit Free Press Tom Walsh Column, Knight Ridder-Tribune Business News , February 25, 2002.

Zdechlik, Mark, "Anderson Putting His Imprint on Northwest Airlines," Minnesota Public Radio, June 18, 2001, .

—Ann McCarthy

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