Delta Air Lines
Begun in 1928 in Louisiana as the Delta Air Service, the Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines is today the nation's third largest, with operations around the world. Through sound management it survived a competitive
Delta's origins can be traced to a historic decision by B. R. Coad and C. E. Woolman. Coad was an employee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's field laboratory in Tallulah, Louisiana; Woolman was with its extension service. They worked on finding a solution to the boll weevil infestation of cotton crops and concluded that the "dusting" of an insecticide powder from the air would be the most effective form of treatment.
Woolman purchased three Travel Air six-seat monoplanes and on June 17, 1929, inaugurated Delta's passenger service from Love Field in Dallas,
A reprieve came for Delta on the heels of the "airmail scandal," when the U.S. Congress enacted the Air Mail Act of 1934. Woolman secured a low-bid contract for the new Route 24 airmail service between Dallas and Charleston, South Carolina, via Atlanta. That same year Delta resumed passenger services, flying Stinson Trimotors. From a precarious beginning it now had a foothold in the Deep South, with Georgia's capital city, Atlanta, as the prize.
Market Competition and the Civil Aeronautics Board
With the exception of the "Big Four" airlines (Eastern, TWA, United, American) that were favored with mail contracts and routes, the aviation industry in the 1930s was less a business than a high-stakes gamble. Safety remained a constant concern. An important step in regulation was the passage of the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938, which created the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB).
The War Years and After
America's entry into World War II (1941-45) slowed Delta's growth. With fewer aircraft in operation, Delta converted its Atlanta facility and personnel into aviation maintenance and training cogs in the national war effort. In 1945 the company's official name became Delta Air Lines, and Woolman, Delta's first vice president, became president and general manager.
In the decade after the peace of 1945, Delta stayed current with technology advances by purchasing new equipment and seeking new routes. In 1945 the CAB approved a Chicago–Miami, Florida, route via Atlanta—Delta's second foray outside the South. In 1948 the company began flying the all-new Douglas DC-6, a pressurized, four-engine passenger plane that cruised at 328 miles per hour.
While the CAB brought stability to the industry, trends in mergers and consolidation continued. The most significant up to this point took place in 1953, when Delta merged with Chicago and Southern Airlines (C&S), giving it access to a Great Lakes route system in the upper Midwest and, importantly, to points in the Caribbean Sea served by C&S.
Even more significant, in 1955 Delta obtained approval to operate an Atlanta to New York route. Scheduled service extended to Philadelphia; Baltimore, Maryland; and Charlotte, North Carolina.
Its streak of fortune continued in 1961 with CAB approval to operate in its own right (as opposed to interchange service) from points in California and Florida. Two years later, Delta's continuing foray into international markets received CAB approval for an interchange agreement with Pan Am that allowed Delta aircraft to fly from Atlanta and New Orleans to points in Europe. Delta's second National Safety Award (the first council award was in 1945) added to the company's reputation.
When Woolman died in 1966, the company lost the leader who had dominated the airline from the start and stamped it with his personality. Successor chief executive officers over the next two decades were Charles H. Dolson (1965-70), W. T. Beebe (1970-71), and David Garrett (1971-87).
Transition to Jets
The Deep South propeller airline that Woolman had first envisioned was becoming a modern jet service
Delta carried out its second merger in 1972 with the acquisition of Northeast Air. Though a troubled airline, Northeast offered an attractive prize to a national carrier with its Boston base and routes to Canada, Bermuda, the Bahamas, and Miami, Florida. Delta chose to keep the airline's Boeing 727s. While it retained a cost-conscious, practical business approach emphasizing service—one highly identified with its home base—Delta now was operating on a vaster scale.
The Wide-Body Jet Era and the L-1011
In 1970 Delta entered the wide-body era with the purchase of the first of five Boeing 747s. The wide-body jet could carry more passengers farther, and at a cheaper overall cost. Delta followed with the purchase of a limited number of Douglas DC-10s, a stopgap until its larger order of the new Lockheed L-1011 TriStars could be delivered. (The order had been delayed because of problems in the development of the TriStar's Rolls Royce engines.) In 1973 the TriStar entered service for Delta. Because of its favorable economics and advanced systems, the L-1011, fifty-four in all, became the mainstay of Delta's wide-body fleet. The TriStar was the plane that supported Delta's expansion in domestic, transcontinental, and international markets. Eventually it was replaced by the Boeing 767-300ER and the MD-11 on the international routes, and in 2001 by the Boeing 767-400ER for domestic routes.
The Modern Era: Deregulation
In 1978 Congress passed the Airline Deregulation Act, phasing out the CAB's route and rate authority.
Commercial aviation's greatest challenge in its earliest years was convincing an interested but skeptical public that flying was safe. Delta's enviable record played a role in winning public acceptance. In the mid-1980s, however, the company faced setbacks when a Delta TriStar crashed on its final approach to Dallas. Safety examiners determined that the cause of the crash was wind shear accompanying stormy conditions. On four occasions over a three-week period in 1987, Delta aircraft incidents involving human errors kept the airline in the news, though none of these incidents resulted in injury. A crash of a Delta 727 on takeoff from Dallas in 1988 because of an improper flap setting did result in loss of life. Delta responded to these accidents and errors with a complete review of its training programs and operations and made improvements.
A Global Airline
Delta started its first transpacific service to Tokyo, Japan, from Portland, Oregon, on March 2, 1987. The following month, Delta's third acquisition took place with the merger of Western Airlines.
In 1991 Delta's international market reached a new level with its record-setting acquisition of Pan Am's transatlantic routes (Pan Am was in liquidation). In 1993 Delta established a code-sharing arrangement among other airlines, giving the company access to more destinations. In 1995 the company added scheduled service aboard its new wide-body MD-90 and two years later began service to Latin America. In 1997 Delta set a record for passenger boarding volume, and Leo Mullin was named president. In 1999 the company added the Boeing 777 to its fleet. By the turn of the century, Delta Air Lines had become a true global carrier—an extraordinary progress from three six-seat monoplanes and a few pilots serving four Deep South cities in 1929. As of mid-2004 Delta had access to more than 494 cities in 86 countries.
Delta Today in an Uncertain World
The challenges of operating an airline have remained essentially the same since the mid-1930s: viability depends upon safety, equipment, economy, market, and service.
For the major airlines, the situation has only worsened with the downturn in the U.S. economy and the decline in air travel since September 2001. Because it has climbed to the top, Delta's newest challenge is one of managing a multibillion-dollar global business in a competitive environment riddled with political and international stress. Delta posted a $2.4 billion loss in 2001-2.
In early 2003 Delta created Song, a new unit of the company that offers flyers competitive low-fare amenities. In November 2003 CEO Mullin abruptly announced his retirement, a decision that followed a controversial move to give bonuses and pension guarantees to some executives (for which he subsequently apologized). He was replaced by Gerald Grinstein, a longtime member of Delta's corporate board and the former CEO of Western Airlines.
Delta posted a fourth-quarter loss for 2004 of $2.2 billion, the largest loss in a single quarter in its history. As a stopgap measure, Grinstein
After employing numerous strategies to reduce costs, increase revenues, and turn around staggering losses, on September 14, 2005, the company finally filed for bankruptcy protection from creditors. (Northwestern Airlines, the fourth-largest carrier in the nation, also filed for bankruptcy the same day.) Delta emerged from bankruptcy on April 25, 2007, and resumed public trading of its shares on the New York Stock Exchange about a week later.
Delta has a history of sound management and profitability. Its survival in the 1930s in the shadow of the Big Four was a mark of Woolman's business savvy and practical sense. Its lead in the purchase of Douglas jets, its aggressiveness in acquiring market assets, its responsiveness to issues of safety, its pride in service, its avoidance of labor wars, and its global expansion kept Delta competitive in the postwar era and elevated it to become the nation's third largest airline in 2003.
Despite the difficulty that much of the industry finds itself in—and the continuing challenge of operating in a deregulated environment—its home base at Hartsfield in Atlanta and in the southern region continue to mark Delta's destiny.
R.E.G. Davies, Delta, an Airline and Its Aircraft: The Illustrated History of a Major U.S. Airline and the People Who Made It (Miami, Fla.: Paladwr Press, 1990).
T. A. Heppenheimer, Turbulent Skies: The History of Commercial Aviation (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1995).
W. David Lewis and Wesley Phillips Newton, Delta: The History of an Airline (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1979).
Anthony Sampson, Empires of the Sky: The Politics, Contests, and Cartels of World Airlines (New York: Random House, 1984).
Jamil S. Zainaldin, Georgia Humanities Council
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.