MIAMI – Do you remember the only airline that offered an active volcano on-board flights to Hawaii? Yes, that’s right; it was Western Airlines.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, they gave customers the opportunity of living the experience, an exotic Volcano Punch as part of its island service on flights to Honolulu and Maui. However, Western was not just known for it.
The California–based airline made a big splash in the 1960s with the introduction of the slogan: “It’s the o-o-only way to fly”; even in cartoons, it became widely referenced. Also, the Gemini 7 astronaut, Jim Lovell, used the slogan to describe how it felt to be orbiting Earth. The airline was widely known for its commercials, that featured William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy from Star Trek and Rodney Dangerfield.
Also, in some way, Western was a celebrity airline; many of them were often spotted on the carrier’s flights due to its significant presence in Los Angeles and on the west coast. The airline also often featured celebrities in its in-flight magazine.
Additionally, Western had many firsts over its 62 years of flying: it became the first airline with airborne television reception on-board, the first airline to place typewriters on-board for passenger use, the first airline to fly a DC-4, the first airline to use a conveyor belt system to load and unload an aircraft, and the first to fly the Lockheed 188 Electra.
Saturday, April 1st, marked the 30th anniversary of Delta completing it’s $860-million-dollar merger with Western; it played a very significant role for Delta as it provided the opportunity for the airline to grow in the western half of the United States.
The Early Years of Western
Western’s roots go all the way back to 1925 when they started carrying the mail; known as Western Air Express, it won the contract for a 650-mile mail route from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles.
On April 17, 1926, the airline began a customer service on their routes. By 1930, Western had the largest air system in the world that covered 16,000 miles with a fleet of 40 aircraft; it became the first airline to fly the Fokker F-32 which was the first time a four-engine passenger plane was flown in the United States; the aircraft also offered the first reeling seats for airline passengers.
In the meantime, Western and Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT) merged its routes and formed TWA (Transcontinental & Western Airlines), but Western still continued to operate its original Salt Lake City-Los Angeles route independently from TWA.
In 1931, Western acquired Mid-Continent Air Express, and in 1934, they changed its name to General Air Lines, as it officially became an independent corporation under General Motors.
However, by the end of 1934, Western became no longer associated with TWA and dissolved the General Air Lines brand once Western Air Express Corporation was created.
Near the end of the 1930s, Western merged with National Parks Airways. They also began flying the Douglas DC-3 and became the first airline to place typewriters on-board for passengers.
As the 1940s rolled in, Western continued to grow its route network. In 1941, the airline started flying to Canada. That didn’t last enough, the airline started suffering traffic declines and other industry turmoil in the late-1940s.
The ‘50s and ‘60s
Despite the turbulent end of the 1940s, the 1950s and 1960s were glamorous decades for Western. It expanded the route network immensely in the continental United States. The airline also added cities in Alaska, Hawaii, Mexico, and Canada.
New passenger services and classes were also introduced. Western started a coach class service in 1952. Two years later, it started its “Champagne Service” which included complimentary champagne, steaks, and more, plus, it offered the “Hunt Breakfast” which meant that passengers had three choices of meat for breakfast.
In 1956, the airline introduced Wally Bird who was considered a “Very Important Bird” (VIB). He was an animated bird that would appear in television commercials and continued to spread the famous slogan, “the o-o-only way to fly.”
Western also introduced the Flub-Stub program; passengers would be offered a dollar if Western failed to deliver a promise with the service. The airline also began flying the Boeing 707, 720B, 727, and 737s in the 1960s.
The early ‘70s were rough for the airline; Western flight 329, served with a Boeing 737, was hijacked while flying from San Francisco to Seattle. The same happened the following year, two 727s suffered the same luck from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles; one was flown to Cuba and the other to Algiers (after it was switched to a Boeing 720B).
DC-10 service started in 1973; over the next seven years, Western entered into several interchange agreements with different airlines, including Braniff and Continental Airlines. This would help to connect passengers with other parts of the country where Western didn’t have presence. In the meantime, the airline also continued to open up new routes, including Los Angeles to Miami and Seattle to Washington D.C. as it stretched its wings to the eastern half of the United States.
In the meantime, the airline continued to open up new routes, including Los Angeles to Miami and Seattle to Washington D.C. starting to stretched its wings to the eastern half of the United States.
However, the airline began to experience some financial difficulties due to weak profits during the airline deregulation of 1978.
In 1980, Western commenced its first trans-Atlantic service. It launched Honolulu-Anchorage-London flights, but this route will only last a few months. In 1981, Western opted to simplify the service by adding Denver-London flights, but in 1982 weak performance made LGW discontinued.
Despite the troubles caused by trans-Atlantic operations, the airline began to focus on its key strength—the western half of the United States. In 1982, Salt Lake City became a major hub for the airline with 59 daily flights, and in 1983, Los Angeles became another Western hub.
With the carrier focusing and building on its strengths, the airline avoided bankruptcy in 1984 and found it easier when reaching work concessions with its unions.
Just as many eastern U.S. airlines started looking towards the west for growth opportunities, Western was up to 115 daily departures from Salt Lake City by 1985. The airline successfully navigated a successful turnaround and started marking a profit. The carrier also entered into an agreement with SkyWest to operate flights under the Western Express brand to reach smaller cities from Salt Lake City.
Merger With Delta
After more than six months of rumors, it was announced on September 9, 1986, that Delta and Western would officially merge.
Their merger was just the latest of several to be announced in a wave of consolidation after deregulation. It would be the perfect fit since there was very little overlap between the two airlines; Delta had a strong presence in the east and central parts of the United States while Western dominated the west.
At the time, Eastern and Texas Air Corporation were attempting to merge, but it was blocked by the courts. There was some concern that the merger of Delta and Western would not be approved, but thanks to their little overlap, it was approved with very few issues.
Only one labor group at Delta was unionized while many others were at Western at the time of the merger. Even though one group attempted to get the merger blocked, it was unsuccessful.
Overall, the merger went very smoothly and helped push Delta to be a strong national airline. It became easier to move people from the eastern to the western parts of the United States and vice versa.
Sure there are other ways to fly now, but just remember, Western was the “o-o-only way to fly” back when it was still around.
RELATED: Want to learn even more about Western’s history? Visit the Delta Flight Museum page on Western here.