EAGAN, Minn. (AP) _ Northwest Airlines took a close look at the competition and then held up a mirror to itself.

``We didn't like what we saw, frankly,'' said Charles Breer, director of product development for the nation's fourth-largest carrier.

Northwest was investing millions to renovate its hubs in Minneapolis, Detroit, Memphis, Tokyo and Amsterdam, to fix up and add airplanes to its fleet and to upgrade its ground operations technology. But it found that its competitors had better relationships with their customers.

Northwest has been battling negative public opinion that began in the mid-1990s as it grappled with labor problems. Its pilots struck for 15 days in 1998, and there have been protracted contract negotiations with flight attendants _ who reached a tentative agreement last month _ and the airline's mechanics. And there are lingering effects from Northwest's performance during a 1999 snowstorm, when passengers were left sitting in planes for eight hours in Detroit.

``Too much in too little time has gone wrong. That hurts,'' said Andy Thompson, an airplane cleaner in Minneapolis.

So Northwest asked some of its best customers _ people who spend hundreds of hours aboard its planes each year _ what it could do to change people's minds. The company also set up a training program to help employees better understand passenger needs and it created a department to help implement customer suggestions for improved service.

As part of the project, the airline formed an advisory council including 13 customers from its WorldPerks Elite frequent flier program. During the council's first meeting last fall in Utah, Northwest managers listened as the customers blamed the airline's image problem on poor employee relations.

``Your employees do care and a lot of them are frustrated by the lack of response from Northwest management,'' said council member Clark Krystek of Plainville, Mass., a businessman who logs more than 75,000 miles a year on Northwest.

Shirley Moulton, a Detroit customer who flies more than 25,000 miles annually, told executives their workers ``are your front line, your eyes and ears on the street. Focus on respect for your employees and they will undoubtedly deliver.''

Other council members said Northwest should provide better training so employees are familiar with airline programs and upgrade technology that saves time for customers.

Northwest played a videotape of those comments at the group's April meeting in Santa Monica, Calif., and talked about progress being made in providing more consistent service, improving employee morale and rewarding loyal customers.

``We did hear you,'' said Susan Edberg, vice president for reservation sales and services.

Some of the airline's changes involve technology and training. Northwest will introduce new software in June to enable employees to more quickly identify the airline's best customers, check their preferences and let the ticketing agent know about any problem, such as a weather delay or cancellation, on their previous flights so the airline can apologize and offer a voucher for compensation.

``What we want to get to is treat everybody great, but treat some people even better,'' Edberg said. ``We'll find people who pay $100,000 a year to the airline. Things are going to happen for those people.''

While the airline's best customers will get the top service, Northwest believes all customers benefit from overall improvements in service, such as on-time performance, Edberg said.

Northwest is also testing a system _ expected to be available to all customers by early 2001 _ that will enable a passenger to check in and print a boarding pass from a home computer. And the airline is adding more machines for self-service electronic check-in and using roaming agents with hand-held personal computers to check in passengers without baggage.

But the airline is also focusing on its employees. In January, Northwest managers met with cleaners, ramp agents, customer service representatives and other ground operations workers to ask them how customers could be better served.

The company has launched a training program called ``Catch the Spirit'' to help employees understand how to keep customers satisfied, how to calm angry customers and how to work better with each other.

Erika Gwilt, director of ground operations education, said she tells employees to concentrate on customer needs.

``Make their day, go above and beyond, be there for them,'' Gwilt tells employees. ``It's easy to make somebody's day if they're happy. How do you make their day better for somebody who's had a bad day?''

Initially, the airline's 14,000 ground operations employees are attending the training sessions. The airline expects to provide 65 hours of such training to each employee this year.

Employees at a recent training session agreed that Northwest would be a better company if it had more satisfied employees.

``If everybody would put themselves in the other person's position and understand what they do, it would make our jobs easier,'' said Bruce Ruditis, a ramp worker from Pittsburgh.

Members of the advisory council said they were pleased with the changes Northwest is making.

``Northwest is going from an almost adversarial relationship with employees to cooperation,'' said Tom Baggett, a customer from Memphis who flies more than 75,000 miles a year.

Eugene West, of New York, who flies more than 50,000 miles a year, told airline executives, ``I really feel that Northwest management people have been listening. You are trying to improve the airline in a fiscally responsible way.''

``Maybe you'll come up with something enticing to keep us with you for 15 to 20 years,'' he said.

Terry Trippler, an airline expert with 1travel.com, a discount travel booking site, and sometime Northwest critic, said he expects the airline's reputation for service to improve quickly. He predicted Northwest would be the best airline for customer service by 2001.

``For an airline that large, I've never seen anyone respond quicker than they do,'' Trippler said. ``When Northwest says, `his is what we're planning to do, I have learned,' believe them.''