MIAMI — Delta Air Lines celebrated its 85th birthday on Tuesday. It marked the milestone by re-opening the Delta Flight Museum in its hometown, Atlanta.
Delta flew its first passenger flight from Dallas to Jackson, Mississippi, on June 17, 1929. The carrier did not let its history go unnoticed as it held a formal opening event with the Spirit of Delta and employees wearing uniforms as the backdrop. The event began with a film that had other executives talking about Delta and its history, and the museum was filled with employees, retires, and their families.
The museum is not just about Delta’s history. It looks at the development of commercial aviation and honors the airlines that have helped Delta over the years turn into the airline it is today.
“This museum is a testament to the rich history and unique culture of Delta, which has always been deeply rooted in our people,” said Richard Anderson, Delta’s chief executive officer. “The museum also commemorates Delta’s contributions to passenger aviation, which influences economic growth and development and fosters greater understanding across cultures. We are proud to welcome the world to the Delta Flight Museum as we celebrate our 85th anniversary of passenger service.”
The museum has a lot of unique items. It has a theater to show movies and presentations, a conference room in a L-1011 fuselage, the cockpit of a Convair 880, and a 737-200 full motion simulator, for starters.
During the course of the last 85 years, a lot has happened, and the airline has come a long way from its crop dusting roots. Delta traces its origins back to 1924, when B. R. Coad and Collett E. Woolman came together to find the solution to fix the infestation of cotton crops in the south. Both believed that they could fix the issue by dusting an insecticide powder from the air, and it quickly became a big business for the two. On May 30, 1924, Huff Daland Dusters Incorporated became the world’s first aerial crop dusting company.
Huff Daland Dusters Inc. was founded in Macon, Georgia, but it was moved to Monroe, Louisana in 1925. Shortly after the move, Woolman stepped down from his position to help establish crop-dusting and passenger services in Peru with the company.
Three years later, he returned to the United States with a lot of fresh experience under his belt, and he raised the capital to buy Huff Daland. On September 13, 1928, he changed the company’s name to Delta Air Service.
The name Delta was suggested by Catherine Fitzgerald (who later became a company executive) since the Mississippi River Delta was close to the Monroe, Louisiana headquarters.
It started expanding eastward and westward in the 1930s as it added service to Atlanta and Fort Worth. Unfortunately, the airline faced several setbacks early on. The route to Fort Worth was terminated in 1930 as the U.S. Post Office awarded this route to American Airlines. Additionally, the airline was unable to win other airmail contracts. Although the company was flying passengers, airmail contracts were necessary for start-up airlines back then, and since the carrier was not able to win sufficient contracts, it temporarily suspended passenger service in 1930 until the U.S. Congress enacted the Air Mail Act of 1934.
Delta re-launched operations once again in ’34. This time, Woolman secured a contract for the new Route 33 airmail service between Dallas and Charleston, South Carolina, via Atlanta, and it also started service from Charleston, SC to Fort Worth, with stops in Columbia, SC, Augusta, Atlanta, Birmingham, and Meridian.
In 1941, Delta moved the headquarters to Atlanta from Monroe, and the carrier continued to grow rapidly.
In 1953, Delta bought Chicago and Southern Air Lines which helped the airline grow its route network in the midwest and south.
The 1960s was also a big decade for Delta. It was the start of the jet age as it added the Convair 880 in 1960, and it introduced the world’s first DC-9 in 1965. Delta also introduced a new red, white, and blue logo that became known as the “widget” as it was triangular shaped. Why this shape? It was to represent the swept wing of a jet.
By the start of the 1970s, Delta became an all-jet airline. In 1972, Delta purchased Northeast Airlines strengthen its market share in the northeastern United States, and Delta launched its cargo service Delta Air Express in 1975. In 1981, Delta launched its first frequent flyer program which later known as SkyMiles in 1995.
Delta took delivery of its first Boeing 767-200 in 1983 which is known as the Spirit of Delta since employees voluntarily paid for thanks to Delta employees to show their appreciation for solid management and strong leadership after the airline deregulation. It is safe to say that this aircraft is one of Delta’s most prized possessions as retires and current employees love to tell the story about how Delta acquired the aircraft.
Starting in the early 1990s, the airline started a dramatic expansion as it purchased most of Pan Am’s European routes when the airline filled for bankruptcy. Delta acquired Pan Am’s East Coast and European routes. These new assets were purchased for approximately $1.3 billion, and Delta now had the largest transatlantic route network among the U.S. airlines.
The large network made other airlines unhappy. Northwest in particular wasn’t happy that Delta was flying between Detroit and London since Delta had a small presence in Detroit compared to Northwest’s large presence. However, Northwest purchased Delta’s route in 1995.
While Delta beefed up its transatlantic network, the carrier continued growing domestically in the United States. It built and maintained Portland as hub for its Asia operations. At its height, Delta served approximately eight cities in Asia from Portland.
At the end of the twentieth century, Delta and United introduced a marketing partnership that offered reciprocal redemption agreement between SkyMiles and MileagePlus. This was brand new as it allowed members of either frequent flier program to earn miles on both carriers and utilize both carriers’ lounges, and Delta and United attempted to introduce an even closer codeshare agreement, but it was killed by ALPA.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, AeroMéxico, Air France, Delta, and Korean Air came together for form SkyTeam, and Continental Airlines and Northwest Airlines joined the alliance approximately three years later when Delta started code sharing with the two airlines.
During the early part of the 2000s, Delta worked to simplify its fleet and to cut costs. It retired its trijets (727s, L-1011s and MD-11s) which were the workhorses of its fleet in favor of twinjets.
In 2004, Delta was working shed to try to avoid bankruptcy. It restructured the company and cut many jobs, and it also added more than 100 new flights to its Atlanta operation.
The following year, Delta finalized a deal to sell Atlantic Southeast Airlines (ASA) (a Delta Connection carrier) for $425 million to SkyWest Airlines for money to avoid bankruptcy. Many saw this as a desperate move and valued ASA to be worth close to double what Delta received.
Once again, Delta made more cuts to save some money to prevent bankruptcy. This time, it cut 26% of its flights at its Cincinnati hub and redeployed aircraft to its hubs in Atlanta and Salt Lake City.
The years 2005 through 2007 were tough times for Delta. Employees had to take pay cuts, buy outs, and some were laid off. In 2007 the carrier exited bankruptcy, and Delta began building a large presence in the New York City and Los Angeles markets, introduced a sub-carrier (Song), and worked on improving its product.
In 2008, Delta and Northwest Airlines announced that they were merging to become the world’s largest airline. The two carriers worked very hard to integrate the two companies, and in the end, the Delta/Northwest merger is praised and often compared to other airline mergers.
While the museum signifies Delta’s rich history, it also signifies the commitment and impact the carrier has had on Atlanta.
“The opening of the new Delta Flight Museum represents the addition of a world-class facility that honors and celebrates our city’s longstanding and historic partnership with Delta,” said Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who also spoke at the event. “We are delighted to celebrate Delta’s 85th anniversary of passenger service and look forward to building on a relationship that solidifies our city’s position as the business and cultural center of the South through global engagement and international commerce…every single day because of your 58,000 people work at the airport and 400,000 jobs are related to your operation. Wherever Delta has gone, Atlanta has followed, and we are bound together.”
Mayor Reed also honored Richard Anderson with the Phoenix award on behalf of all of Delta’s Atlanta based employees. Reed discussed the impact that Delta has had on Atlanta, and it has had an impact for more than 80 years. Having one of the world’s leading airlines headquartered in your city brings many jobs and economic growth to the city.
On a wider scale, Georgia’s governor also attended the event, and he explained that Georgia’s tourist numbers continue to climb thanks to Delta and many others.
“For decades, Delta Air Lines has served as a major economic engine for our state,” said Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, who spoke at Tuesday’s grand opening celebration. “It’s an honor to be here today, both to showcase the rich history of commercial aviation in Georgia and to honor the thousands of people who have worked to make Delta one of the world’s most successful airlines.” After his speech, he declared June 17 Delta Day in Georgia.
At the end of the events, a time capsule (which was an old oven from an aircraft) was christened by Anderson.
What will the next 85 years of Delta bring?