In memoriam: The Midwest cookie

By Rob Fixmer
Rob FixmerTo most of the world it was probably just a curious news item, but as a native of Wisconsin and a resident of Dallas in the 1980s, I nearly cried when I learned of the demise of the warm chocolate chip cookies onboard Frontier Airlines flights.

For Frontier, killing the cookie was a simple financial decision. But for those of us Wisconsin expats who flew the late, great Midwest Express airline with any regularity, it was the last vestige of a travel experience so personal, so unique and charming that the memory never fails to bring a smile to my face. And the warm, gooey, chocolate chip cookies, baked during the flight and served hot, were the airline's signature treat.

Of course, Frontier is not Midwest Express, just the current custodian of assets once held by Milwaukee's legendary little airline. Frontier, based in Denver and owned by Republic Airways Holdings, is just another commodity carrier, no better or worse than any other of its ilk, whether of the discount or legacy variety.

Midwest Express (the name was later shortened to just Midwest) was something else altogether.

When I first took a Midwest Express flight in 1984, it was for a job interview at the Dallas Times Herald, and I had just enough flying experience under my belt to recognize immediately that this was not a typical airline.

The first clue was the seating. Midwest flew only DC-9s (later known as MD-80s). But instead of McDonnell Douglas' standard 3-2 seating arrangement, Midwest had its DC-9s configured in a single-class, 2-2 arrangement, with two leather seats of business-class size on either side of the aisle. Legroom was spacious, even when the bozo in front of you insisted on fully reclining his seatback.

But seating wasn't the half of it.

Most memorable was the food, which was nothing short of exquisite -- a clear differentiator for any airline of any era. Well, maybe the evening dinners weren't so exquisite for anyone on a diet, because they leaned to the French side of rich and the German size of portions. The mid-day lunches were lighter, such as generous plates of apple and pear slices and bunches of grapes, served with three or four varieties of Wisconsin cheese.

Both dinners and lunches were served on china, with silver flatware, linen napkins and your choice of two or three wines -- typically two reds and a white -- selected by the airline's sommelier to complement the flight's menu. The wine was poured into crystal stemware at your seat from full-size bottles. This wasn't airline food; it was in-flight haute cuisine. On my many Midwest flights over the years, I was never served the same repast twice, and I never ceased to be delighted by the fare.

And then there were the cookies.

No sooner had the dinnerware been collected and carted off than the most glorious aroma would begin wafting from the galleys. Passengers would exchange grinning glances, knowing that cookie time was nigh, and no matter how stuffed you might be from your lunch or dinner, the smell of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies -- the finest ever to caress my palate -- would have your mouth watering in eager anticipation.

While all this would have been impressive on any airline, what made Midwest special above all else was its crews. With the possible exception of Southwest crews flying out of Dallas Love Field, I've never encountered happier, more welcoming hosts. On every flight, I got the sense that I was a guest at some family party. And indeed, in one case I actually was.

That occasion was a flight from Dallas to Milwaukee in 1988 or '89, and I hesitate to recount it here, even all these years later, lest I land someone in trouble. But it speaks volumes about the weird and wonderful charm of this airline.

It was the third week of December, and my wife and I were headed back to Wisconsin with our three kids for Christmas festivities. As I recall, it was somewhere over Iowa at about 8:30 in the evening that the captain announced over the intercom, "Ladies and gentlemen, nothing to worry about ..." -- at which point a quiet panic overtook the cabin -- "... but we'll be making an unscheduled stop in Appleton."

Now Appleton is some 87 miles north of Milwaukee and thus nowhere near the route from Dallas to Brewtown. But Appleton and the airline had a history. Until it was spun off as an independent carrier, Midwest Express had been the executive air service of Kimberly-Clark Corp., which was then headquartered in Neenah, Wis., within spitting distance of Appleton and its airport.

As unscheduled stops go, this one took the grand prize. When the wheels touched down on an icy runway, we felt a somewhat unsettling swaying in the back of the plane. Out the window, we could not see a terminal or, in fact, anything at all beyond the 14-foot snowbanks that lined both sides of the runway.

From an opening in one snowbank emerged a small bus with a stairway attached. Soon the cabin door opened, and a bitterly cold wind ushered in a dozen or so clearly inebriated party-goers. We knew this because they were still wearing paper hats, still singing loudly and still blowing on noise-makers as they staggered into the aisle. Someone's Christmas party had been added to our itinerary.

But there was a catch: 12 people boarded a plane that had only five empty seats. "No problem," one of the newcomers declared to three clearly nervous, though somewhat amused flight attendants. "We'll just sit on each others' laps." A clear violation of FAA rules. Yet they did just that, squeezing into seats that, though generous in size, were clearly not suitable for double occupancy.

Still, that left two party people without seats or laps, and none of us original passengers were of a mind to offer ours. So it was that my family and I witnessed a sight that left an indelible memory, one that still brings a smile to my face: strap-hangers during the flight of a commercial jet aircraft that had no straps. I kid you not!

To the best of my knowledge, no passenger or crew ever reported the incident to the FAA. But why would we? It was that weird combination of elegant, friendly service and naughty, wink-and-a-nod playfulness that set Midwest apart from any other airline of any era.

After my family and I moved to New York, we kept flying Midwest from Newark to Milwaukee, and over the years, we watched it die a painful death by dismemberment.

Bit by bit, its wonderful quirks and accoutrements disappeared, and its crews grew morose, until finally the ghost of what had been was swallowed up by Republic and merged into Frontier.

I'm not naive. I recognize that Midwest was an iffy business proposition from the get-go. It loved and pampered its passengers in ways that were ultimately unsustainable. But we loved it back, and oh what a ride it was while it lasted.

It would be presumptuous to assert that when the final warm cookie is served, unheralded, on some routine Frontier flight sometime in May (replaced by Goldfish crackers, no less) it will mark the end of a brief, shining moment in the history of commercial aviation. But it's no exaggeration at all to state that it will surely mark the final interment of a cherished friend in the sky, now passed but never forgotten.

Rob Fixmer is the editor of Travel Weekly. Contact him at rfixmer@travelweekly.com. 
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