History of Delta Air Lines

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Delta Air Lines is a major American airline with a history that goes back to 1924.

1924 through 1940[edit]

A restored Huff Daland Duster

Delta's origins can be traced to a decision by B. R. Coad and Collett 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. From this decision, Huff Daland Dusters Incorporated was born. It was founded on May 30, 1924, in Macon, Georgia, and became the world's first aerial crop dusting company. The company moved to Monroe, Louisiana, in 1925. Woolman left his position with the extension service and in the off-season traveled with the company to Peru, where they helped to establish crop-dusting and passenger services. With this experience, Woolman returned to the United States and in 1928 raised the capital to buy Huff Daland, purchasing it on September 13, 1928, and renaming the company Delta Air Service, with its headquarters in Monroe. The name Delta, referring to the Mississippi Delta, was suggested by Catherine Fitzgerald, a secretary who later would rise to the rank of an executive in the company.[1]

In 1930 the Delta Air Corporation (as it was then called) expanded eastward to include service to Atlanta, the fastest-growing city in the South, and westward to Fort Worth, Texas.[1] This service was terminated in 1930 after the "Spoils Conference", when the Post Office awarded the route to American Airlines. Delta's lack of success in winning a commercial airmail contract—the bread and butter of any aspiring airline—jeopardized its existence, and the company suspended passenger service.[1]

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 33 airmail service between Dallas and Charleston, South Carolina, via Atlanta.[1] In August of that same year Delta resumed passenger services, flying Stinson Trimotors,[1] with a route from Charleston, SC to Fort Worth, with stops in Columbia, SC, Augusta, Atlanta, Birmingham, and Meridian along the way.[2]

1940s and 1950s[edit]

In 1941, Delta moved its headquarters from Monroe to Atlanta, to center itself along its new route network that now stretched to Chicago, Miami, and New Orleans.

A Delta Douglas DC-7, circa 1955

In 1953 Delta purchased Chicago and Southern Air Lines, and flew under the name Delta C&S for the next two years.[3] Like Braniff, Delta was initially restricted to Newark, but both airlines transferred across the Hudson River to Idlewild after only a few years.[citation needed]

1960s and 1970s[edit]

Douglas DC-8-51 of Delta Airlines landing at Miami International Airport in 1971
Delta Air Lines Douglas DC-10-10 at La Guardia Airport New York in 1973

Delta added jet airliners to its fleet in the 1960s, following the purchase of the Douglas DC-8 that entered service in 1959. Delta's new red, white, and blue triangle logo (the "widget") which began appearing on Delta's aircraft at that time was a representation of the jet's swept wing. Its fleet grew with the addition in 1960 of Convair 880s (they set a coast-to-coast record of just over three hours)[4] and in 1965, the DC-9. Delta became an all-jet airline in 1970.[1]

A Delta L-1011

Delta purchased Northeast Airlines in 1972 to strengthen its market share in the northeastern United States.[1]

Delta launched its cargo service Delta Air Express in 1975.[5]


Delta launched its first frequent flyer program in 1981 which became the SkyMiles program in 1995. In 1983, Delta took delivery of its first Boeing 767-200, named the Spirit of Delta, which was paid for "by voluntary contributions from employees, retirees and Delta's community partners." The effort, called Project 767, was spearheaded by three Delta flight attendants to show the employees' appreciation to Delta for solid management and strong leadership during the first years following airline deregulation."[6] The airplane remained in the Delta fleet until 2006, and was repainted in a commemorative paint scheme and toured the country to celebrate the airline's 75th anniversary in 2004.[7]


A Delta Air Lines Boeing 767-300ER in 1997–2000 livery, more commonly referred to as the Ron Allen scheme. The last mainline aircraft in this livery was repainted to the current livery as of July 2008.

In 1990, Delta became the first U.S. airline to operate the McDonnell Douglas MD-11 aircraft,[8] leasing two from Mitsui.

Delta expanded dramatically by purchasing most of Pan Am's European routes after Pan Am declared bankruptcy in 1991. Delta initially explored a joint divvying-up of Pan Am's assets with United Airlines where Delta would take over the New York-based European operations and United would take over the Miami-based Latin American operations, but the two carriers reached an impasse over which would assume the Pan Am Miami-London route. On September 1, Delta acquired Pan Am's East Coast and European routes (except for its intra-European routes from Frankfurt, acquired by Lufthansa) and assumed a controlling interest in the remainder of Pan Am, which continued to operate routes from Miami to London, Paris and Latin America. The total price for these assets was $1.3 billion.[9]

Although Delta initially promised further equity injections to keep Pan Am afloat, it refused to do so only a month later, which forced Pan Am to cease operations on December 4.[10] United purchased the remaining assets of Pan Am a few days later, including transatlantic routes from Miami, for a total of $135 million.[9]

The Pan Am creditors' committee sued Delta for more than $2.5 billion on December 9.[11]

The Pan Am transaction gave Delta the largest transatlantic route network among U.S. airlines. Because of these acquisitions, Delta became and remains the largest U.S. transatlantic carrier, in terms of passengers carried and number of flights operated. The ex-Pan Am routes acquired by Delta included Detroit to London, despite Northwest Airlines' objections due to Delta's small presence in Detroit and Northwest's comparatively larger operations.[12] Northwest later attempted to buy US Air's (now US Airways) Baltimore-London route for $5 million and transfer the route to Detroit[13] but ended up buying the route from Delta in 1995[14] for a rumored $32 million.[citation needed]

Throughout the 1990s, Delta maintained a secondary hub at Portland for its Asia operations. In addition to regularly scheduled flights to Delta's primary hubs during this time (Atlanta, Cincinnati, Dallas, and Salt Lake City), several of Delta's flights to Asia were routed from Portland and Los Angeles, using L-1011 and MD-11 aircraft. Destinations included Bangkok, Fukuoka (resumed December 28, 2011 from Honolulu as a seasonal route), Hong Kong, Manila, Nagoya, Seoul, Taipei, and Tokyo (resumed June 3, 2009 replacing Northwest Airlines route). Delta was one of the airlines targeted in the failed Operation Bojinka plot: the conspirators planned to bomb a Delta MD-11 flying from Seoul to Bangkok via Taipei on January 21, 1995. Today, all Asia operations from Portland and Los Angeles have ceased (except for Portland-Tokyo and Los Angeles-Tokyo).[15]

In 1998, Delta and United Airlines introduced a marketing partnership that included a reciprocal redemption agreement between SkyMiles and Mileage Plus programs and shared lounges.[16] This scheme allowed members of either frequent flier program to earn miles on both carriers and utilize both carriers' lounges. Delta and United attempted to introduce an even closer codeshare agreement, but this was deal was effectively killed by ALPA.[17]


In 2000 Delta partnered with AeroMéxico, Air France, and Korean Air to form SkyTeam, a global alliance. Three years later, Delta began the largest domestic codeshare alliance with Continental Airlines and Northwest Airlines. Today SkyTeam is the second largest airline alliance in the world (after Star Alliance).[18]

Delta's short-lived Los Angeles focus city was significantly reduced in 2008, ending the build up toward hub status as Delta went from a high of 48 destinations from the airport to just 17.[19]

Fleet transformation in the early 2000s[edit]

In an effort to simplify its fleet and capitalize on cross-platform compatibility, not only in pilot training but also maintenance, the airline began to retire its trijets (three-engine planes) in favor of twinjets (two-engine planes). Delta's entire active fleet is now composed of twinjets, except for the 747s. The airline is now the world's largest operator of 767 aircraft.


Logo of Delta Air Lines from March 2000 to July 2004[20]

As early as 2004, in an effort to avoid bankruptcy, Delta announced a restructuring of the company that included job cuts and an aggressive expansion of Atlanta operations by some 100 new flights, making it a 'super-hub' and requiring the airline to spread its flight schedule more evenly across the day.[21]

On August 15, 2005, in an SEC filing, Delta announced that it had finalized a deal to sell Delta Connection carrier Atlantic Southeast Airlines (ASA) for $425 million in cash to SkyWest Airlines in an effort to obtain money to avoid bankruptcy. Analysts called the move a desperate one, estimating ASA's worth at around $700–$800 million – a price which SkyWest would not have been willing to pay.[22]

On September 7, 2005, Delta announced that it would cut 26% of its flights at its Cincinnati hub and redeploy aircraft to its hubs in Atlanta and Salt Lake City.[23]

Reorganization during bankruptcy[edit]

Boeing 767-300ER in the livery used from 2000 to 2007

On September 22, 2005, Delta announced the acceleration of restructuring activities, targeting an additional $3 billion per year in cost reductions by 2007. $970 million of this amount was to come from debt relief, lease and facility savings, and previously commenced fleet modifications. Non-union workers' salaries were to be reduced by a minimum of 9% across the board, with a 15% reduction for executive officers and a 25% pay cut for CEO Gerald Grinstein. In December 2005, the Delta pilots agreed to an additional temporary 14% cut in pay, piggybacking onto the 32.5% taken at the beginning of 2005. This cut was made permanent with the ratification of an agreement in June 2006. Additionally, the company planned to lay off between 7,000 and 9,000 of its 52,000 employees.[24]

In 2006, Delta purchased rights to fly between New York City and London from United Airlines.[25]

On February 24, 2006, Delta, along with Continental Airlines and FedEx Express, saw future operations to Venezuela severely affected by President Hugo Chávez's decision to restrict flights coming into that South American country from the United States.[26][needs update]

Based on all of these new initiatives, Delta projected a return to profitability by late 2007, based on a crude oil price model of $66 per barrel, in contrast to other bankrupt carriers' restructuring modeled on $55 per barrel. Delta would eventually reach this goal of full year profitability in 2007.[27]

Delta announced that coach travelers in the United States who have a flight longer than four hours will have on-demand programming on all those flights starting in 2007 at its main hubs in New York City, Salt Lake City, and Atlanta. This was to counter entertainment offerings of other airlines like JetBlue Airways, and take place of Song's service. Delta claimed to offer the leading in-flight entertainment system in the United States. Live programming and music are free, and movies will be available on demand for a nominal fee in coach and for free in first class.[28] Delta also intends to install an improved in-flight entertainment system on internationally-configured aircraft, featuring a personal selection of movies. The system was installed in all classes on Boeing 767-400ER and 777-200ER aircraft, and in the BusinessElite section on Boeing 767-300ER aircraft.[29]

On November 9, 2006, the airline announced that it would recall 1,000 flight attendants that were previously laid off. In addition to the flight attendant recall, Delta announced in late December 2006 that it had exhausted its pilot recall list and was now accepting pilot applications for the first time in 5 years. They expected to take on close to 200 first officers through 2007.[30]

Failed takeover attempt by US Airways[edit]

On November 15, 2006, Bloomberg reported that US Airways Group, the parent of US Airways, proposed a takeover of Delta for $8 billion in cash and stock.[31]

In addition to Delta management, Delta employees appeared to be extremely skeptical of US Airways management's claims that a merger would result in no job reductions and provide a more secure future for a combined entity. Employees had started wearing "Keep Delta My Delta" buttons and campaigning to raise public awareness of their opposition to the proposed takeover.[32]

On December 19, 2006, Delta announced (as expected) that it had rejected US Airways Group's proposed merger. Along with the announcement, it launched a media campaign against the merger to raise public support. The campaign, "Keep Delta My Delta", was picked up from the employee grassroots effort of the same name. The effort's website harbored an e-petition, quotes from prominent dissidents, and the effects the merger could have on selected localities. In its report, Delta cited many reasons for rejecting the bid, including it would lead to worse customer service, possible layoffs, an inefficient carrier, the carrier with the largest debt-load in the industry, and near-monopoly powers.[33]

On December 20, 2006, Delta and its financial advisor, the Blackstone Group, declared that Delta would be valued at between $9.4 billion and $12 billion after emerging from bankruptcy, which would (at the time of this writing[when?]) give it a market capitalization comparable to that of Southwest Airlines Co. or greater than that of American Airlines' AMR Corp. and Continental Airlines, Inc. combined. US Airways Group CEO Doug Parker stated that Delta's self-valuation lacked credibility and was unrealistic.[34] Delta CEO Gerald Grinstein retorted by stating that the Tempe-based airline was "the worst of all potential merger partners".[35]

On January 10, 2007, US Airways raised its bid by 20%, to $10.2 billion. The revised offer was set to expire by February 1 unless Delta's creditors opened the airline's books to US Airways and delayed a scheduled February 7 court hearing pertaining to Delta's reorganization plan.[36] Delta responded with a statement, claiming that "...the revised proposal does not address significant concerns that have been raised about the initial US Airways proposal and, in fact, would increase the debt burden of the combined company by yet another $1 billion."[37] That same day Delta Air Lines was speculated to be in talks with Continental Airlines, Northwest Airlines and United Airlines to fend off the US Airways bid.[38] CEO Gerald Grinstein, however, denied that any serious negotiations were ongoing with Northwest or any other airline.[citation needed]

On January 28, 2007, US Airways holding company raised its bid by another $1 billion according to the Wall Street Journal,[39] but company spokesmen denied any change.[citation needed] On January 31, 2007, Delta's creditors rejected US Airways' hostile takeover attempt, and US Airways withdrew its offer to buy Delta. On the same day, executives and employees of the company gathered to celebrate the re-lighting of the historic "FLY DELTA JETS" sign at the company's main hub, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.[40][41]

Emergence from bankruptcy[edit]

Delta Air Lines Boeing 777-200ER in new livery.

On April 25, 2007, the airline's bankruptcy plan was approved by the bankruptcy court. On April 30, 2007, Delta Air Lines emerged from bankruptcy protection as an independent carrier. Delta also unveiled a new logo, reminiscent of its logo from the 1970s and 1980s, and a new paint scheme. Delta's bankruptcy exit strategy was vastly different from that of United in that it expanded its way out of bankruptcy, rather than retrenching.[citation needed]

Delta's previous stock was canceled as of Monday, April 30, 2007, and new shares are trading on a "when issued" basis on the New York Stock Exchange. These shares began trading normally on Thursday, May 3, 2007. The starting price was around $20.00 a share, and went up to as high as $23.35. But investors showed little confidence in the stock as the price fell to $19.00 later in the week.[42]

Upon exiting bankruptcy, Delta also announced a 50% increase in operations at Los Angeles International Airport,[43] thus establishing Los Angeles as Delta's second West Coast hub and new potential Asian gateway with a total of 99 daily departures.


On May 10, 2007, Delta announced a partnership with US Helicopter, who provides service from John F. Kennedy International Airport to several helipads in downtown Manhattan.[44]

On July 12, 2007, Delta and its SkyTeam partners announced that they would forfeit slots in the European Union to relieve antitrust concerns.[45]

On August 21, 2007, Delta named Richard Anderson, former CEO of Northwest Airlines and executive at UnitedHealth Group, as a replacement for outgoing CEO Gerald Grinstein. Anderson assumed the post on September 1.[46]

On November 14, 2007, Pardus Capital Management LP, a hedge fund that owns 7 million shares of Delta and 5.6 million shares of United, called for the two carriers to merge. This action sent shares of both airlines up. However, the two airlines quickly denied official talks of any merger.[47][48] [49]

Japan Airlines shareholder negotiations[edit]

In an effort to expand Delta's Tokyo hub operations at Narita International Airport after the merger with Northwest, on September 11, 2009, Japans's NHK reported that Japan Airlines (JAL) is seriously considering allowing Delta to become a majority shareholder. JAL is a member of Oneworld, which is rival to Delta's SkyTeam alliance.[50][51] In addition, it was reported that JAL was in talks with Delta's partner Air France-KLM and JAL's Oneworld partner and Delta's rival American Airlines (AMR Corporation) for equity investments in the airline.[52]

On January 4, 2010, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported that JAL and the Japanese government-backed Enterprise Turnaround Initiative Corporation of Japan will likely choose to form a business and capital tie-up with Delta, and that JAL would enter the SkyTeam alliance as part of the deal. The move, according to the report, would reduce JAL's international flight operations in favor of code-share agreements with Delta. The report also said that American Airlines had begun procedures to end negotiations with JAL.[53] A JAL spokesman denied the report, stating that negotiations with Delta and American were continuing.[54]

Yomiuri reported on January 16 that Delta had reached an agreement with JAL on a tie-up consisting mostly of code-sharing flight services. JAL and Delta intended to sign the agreement after JAL's bankruptcy protection proceedings begin, and both airlines will apply for antitrust immunity with the United States Department of Transportation in February[citation needed]. Also, JAL announced that it will leave Oneworld and will join the SkyTeam alliance.[55][56] JAL was expected to officially announce the tie-up with Delta and the switch from Oneworld to SkyTeam on February 1, the day Delta's and NWA's reservation systems merge, which is scheduled on January 31, though the antitrust immunity approval may not yet be received until as late as autumn 2010, and JAL's introduction into SkyTeam may not be until as early as the beginning of the 2011 Japanese fiscal year, which begins on April 1 of that year, as the plan by the Enterprise Turnaround Initiative Corporation of Japan (ETIC) suggests. On February 8, 2010, Japan Airlines announced that will remain partners with American Airlines and will stay in Oneworld and the airline's talks with Delta ended.[57]


Merger with Northwest Airlines[edit]

Most common symbol for the merger.
A Northwest Airlines Airbus A330-300 painted in Delta livery as a result of the merger

On April 14, 2008, following merger talks first reported on January 15, 2008,[58] Delta and Northwest Airlines announced that they would merge to create the world's largest airline under the Delta name.[59] The merger formed the largest commercial airline in the world, with 786 aircraft.[60] The Atlanta-based combined airline will have $17.7 billion enterprise value. The company also stated on April 14, 2008 that it agreed with its pilot union to extend the existing collective bargaining agreement through the end of 2012. The agreement, subject to a vote by the pilots, provides Delta pilots a 3.5 percent equity stake in the created new airline.[61]

Northwest WorldPerks was merged into Delta SkyMiles on October 1, 2009. Operating certificates were merged on December 31, 2009. Reservations systems were merged on January 31, 2010; officially retiring the Northwest brand.[62][63]


A Delta Boeing 747-400, inherited from the Northwest merger

The deal passed anti-trust overview from the Department of Justice; as most analysis expected, the deal was not blocked, due to the minimal overlap between the two airlines' routes and very little threat to competition in the industry.[64] The merger was also expected to be the subject of several hearings on Capitol Hill. Representative Jim Oberstar of Minnesota, who also serves as chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, made clear his opposition to the merger, and he fought it in Washington[citation needed]. There was also strong support for the merger at the Capitol from legislators from Georgia, including Representative Lynn Westmoreland, Representative David Scott, and Senator Johnny Isakson.[65] On August 7, 2008, the merger won regulatory approval from the European Union.[66]

After a six-month investigation, government economists concluded the merger would likely drive down costs for consumers without curbing competition.[67] On October 29, 2008, the United States Department of Justice approved the merger between Delta Air Lines and Northwest.[68]


As of December 31, 2009, 216 of NWA's 303 aircraft have been painted in Delta livery.[63] Northwest's three US hubs have been fully rebranded and gates have been consolidated along with other US airports. Some routes are being transferred to Delta from Northwest and to Northwest from Delta depending on the route. In airports where Northwest and Delta operate in separate terminals, one airline moves to another's terminal. For example, in Los Angeles International Airport, NWA, which had a smaller operation, moved into Delta's Terminals 5 and 6 from its previous home in Terminal 2 on June 30, 2009.

Northwest officially ceased operations on January 31, 2010, however certain planes still operate in NWA colors and some of them may not even be repainted as Delta colors. Old NWA markings can also be seen on ship's equipment, such as beverage and food carts, that are loaded on former Northwest aircraft. In May 2012 the final group of employees, flight attendants, began to work together. They had previously voted No to Union representation.

Possible Bid for AMR[edit]

On January 12, 2012, the Wall Street Journal reported that Delta is considering a bid to purchase AMR, the parent of American Airlines. In addition, US Airways and private-equity firm TPG capital are each also considering bids.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g This article incorporates material written by Jamil S. Zainaldin of the Georgia Humanities Council of May 31, 2007 for the New Georgia Encyclopedia ("NGE"), posted or last updated 1302. All derived works must credit the NGE and the original author.
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  21. ^ "Guiding Pilots to their Professional Goals". FLTops.com. Retrieved 2009-03-01. 
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  33. ^ Keep Delta My Delta, archived from the original on December 31, 2006 
  34. ^ Grantham, Russell (December 22, 2006). "US Airways CEO: Delta's self-valuation 'lacks credibility'". Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Archived from the original on October 15, 2007. Retrieved 2006-12-22. 
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  38. ^ Delta Air Lines Is Speculated To Be In Talks with Two Other Airlines For Possible Merger (CNN Money: January 10, 2007)
  39. ^ The Wall Street Journal, 2007-01-29: 3 
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  41. ^ maritimeseven (January 31, 2007). "Video showing FLY DELTA JETS sign being relighted". Youtube.com. Retrieved 2013-01-30. 
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  55. ^ Ben Mutzabaugh. "Report: Japan Airlines to leave oneworld, defect to SkyTeam". Usatoday.com. Retrieved 2013-01-30. [dead link]
  56. ^ [1][dead link]
  57. ^ [2][dead link]
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  59. ^ Delta/Northwest Announce Merger Agreements (Official Press Release: April 14, 2008)
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  61. ^ Delta, Northwest approve merger, CNN, 2008-04-15 
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External links[edit]