BLOOMINGTON, Minn. -- Eighty of the 133 people aboard the 8 a.m. flight from Grand Rapids, Mich., and thousands more passengers from Milwaukee and Omaha and Cleveland and elsewhere, landed at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport with a single purpose in life.
They did not have the expectant, searching eyes of a traveler meeting a loved one. They did not look up for the signs for baggage claim. They were not wearing coats; they would not be needing them, even in December in Minnesota.
They flew here on the last Saturday before Christmas for one reason only: the Mall of America, the biggest shopping center in the country, with 400 stores and a roller coaster.
They came for a frantic, glorious eight or nine hours of power-shopping in retail heaven before catching the last flight home and a return to their everyday lives, a little poorer but with the perfect Moose-shaped teapot that they bet nobody else in Muskegon, Mich., has.
For now, they were living a dream, a brief admission to the jet set because of super-low air fares pegged to one-day shopping sprees at the mall.
Every Saturday since November, people could fly to Minneapolis for $78 to $98 round trip, depending on the city of origin, as long as they returned the same day.
Northwest came up with the fares to fill their Saturday flights. The fares end Jan. 8.
Planes that once flew empty now fly heavy with the promise of acquisition without the airline having to buy a single line of advertising. Serious shoppers just know these things. The seats were filled by word of mouth.
And so JoAnn Haupt from Bismarck, N.D., Lorie Boell from St. Louis and nearly 2,000 people in 38 other cities got up at 5 in the morning to catch the first plane to Minneapolis. Landing before the stores opened and carting folded duffle bags and empty suitcases, the long-distance shoppers headed for a shuttle bus to take them to the mall. They waited in line, four abreast, in the cold.
Each bus was packed, the air quiet and stuffy until the first glimpse of concrete emerged on the right side of the bus. Then there were shouts of "There it is!" People craned their necks to see the shrine.
To Stacey Hofferber of Bismarck, N.D., rising at dawn and paying to fly to a mall made all the sense in the world.
"If men can get up at 4 in the morning to go shoot a deer," she said, "why can't we get up at 4 in the morning to shop? Let's keep this in perspective."
Besides, shoppers say, the 16-month-old Mall of America is not just any mall. It is like a Six Flags amusement park and three or four regular malls, all under one skylight.
The stores -- 400 in all, including Bloomingdale's, Macy's, Nordstrom and Sears -- literally encircle an amusement park, Knott's Camp Snoopy. People can hear the shrieks from the roller coaster in the center of the mall as the cash registers ring up their purchases.
Visitors, some flying in on tour packages from Japan and bus trips from Indiana, spend $2 million a day there.
It is so big that it takes hours just to walk one of the mall's three floors of shopping, and some people rent cellular phones there just to keep up with each other.
Restaurants at the mall hand out pagers to people so they can continue to shop until their table is ready.
It was a big enough deal that Mrs. Hofferber's two sisters, Terry Iversen and Denise Murray, flew in from Billings, Mont., to shop with her. They were late meeting her at the amusement park, though, because they stopped to take pictures out front, and Mrs. Iversen had to stand in the middle of the parking lot across the street to get the whole entrance in the frame.
It was Mrs. Iversen's first trip on a jet and it was entirely logical that a mall was her first destination. A checker at a grocery store, she wanted to see Bloomingdale's.
"Let's start big," she said. "I always wanted to go to New York. When I'm 40, that's my goal. I want to see the big stores, see Broadway. This is as close as I'm going to get for now."
The group paused so she could get her picture in front of Bloomingdale's and in front of Victoria's Secret and near the Record Town and by the Santa House. Along the way, she bought a Bloomie's sweat shirt, silk nightgowns and a Lego set.
Somewhere between The Limited and Benetton, Joanie Huchka and Tracy Sandon from Billings, Mont., were buying nutcracker candles at 50 percent off and preparing to race to the next store before their flight left.
"We didn't browse, we ran," Mrs. Huchka said.
"You keep going in circles and you think you're almost done and there's more and more and more," Ms. Sandon said.
The shopping professionals, like Ms. Sandon and Mrs. Huchka, knew to bring only the essentials. "Credit cards, driver's license and money," Ms. Sandon said.
Noel Sucherman, a teacher at a day care center who said shopping is her only hobby, and her 11-year-old niece, Jami Boston, flew from Chicago to go the mall because it was there. It did not matter that just about everything in the mall could be found in Chicago.