The history of Delta Airlines: From humble 1920s beginnings to industry giant

History of Delta Airlines

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The history of Delta Airlines: Pioneering the skies from modest roots

Delta Airlines history is a story of humble beginnings, innovation and growth. Starting as an aerial crop dusting operation in the 1920s, it evolved into a leading airline.

This transformation was shaped by innovation, strategic growth and a commitment to service — mirroring the broader evolution of air travel during the period.

As Delta expanded its services and fleet, it played a significant role in making air travel accessible and popular, reflecting the spirit of American progress and innovation in the face of changing times.

Below, we’ve collected vintage articles, advertisements and images that capture the spirit of the era — offering a nostalgic look back at the golden age of flying.

TRUE TALES OF TWA FLIGHT ATTENDANTS: Memoirs and Memories From the Golden Age of Flying
  • Kompare, Kathy (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 425 Pages - 10/23/2022 (Publication Date) - (Publisher)
Resorts, hotels, travel — history of Delta Airlines (1952)

by Franklin G. Smith — The Miami News (Miami, Florida) September 21, 1952

Like most of the great continental airlines, Delta had a very inconspicuous beginning. Under the leadership of its founder, the affable and sagacious C.E. Woolman, Delta has been “first” in several important steps in modern aviation.

What once was a little airplane crop dusting company out to lick the boll weevil in the Louisiana cotton fields today is this country’s seventh-largest domestic air carrier, Delta Air Lines.

1959 Delta Air Lines

From an operation with only $125,000 worth of assets in 1935, the ”Airline of the South” has vaulted in less than two decades to the position of an aerial giant with total assets of $24,992,000.

Starting with a couple of fabric-and-bailing-wire planes skimming over the cotton fields, Delta now operates a fleet of 33 Douglas skyliners — seven DC-6s, six DC-4’s and 20 DC-3s — over 3,654 miles of routes linking 32 cities of the South and Midwest.

And still, Woolman, affectionately known as ‘C. E.’, the airline’s quiet-spoken president, is looking to the future — and building. Delta has on order 10 twin-engine Convair 340s and four giant four-engine DC-7s, a mere $13,000,000 order.

Delta Air Lines - The airline of the South (1945)
Delta Air Lines – The airline of the South (1945)

Merger request on file

Application is pending before the Civil Aeronautics Board for a merger of Delta with Chicago and Southern Air Lines. The merger would mean a carrier operating a fleet of 51 airplanes, increasing to 75 when pending orders of Delta and C. & S. are filled. It would mean a carrier flying 6,474 miles of domestic routes, fanning northward from Miami through the South to major cities in the Midwest and Texas.

The merged lines also would be certificated to fly 3,034 miles of foreign routes to Cuba, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. Delta is also seeking a merger with Northeast Airlines that would send the Airline of the South winging into New England. Northeast, with headquarters in Boston, serves 34 New England cities. The merger agreement has been ratified by boards of directors of both companies.

Delta Air Lines Royal Service flights for luxury aloft (1959)

Woolman started young

Like many of the airline leaders today, Delta’s Woolman has been in the flying game since aviation’s knee pants days — his first venture came when he and a group of young friends tried to haul passengers with a kite.

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They built a giant kite 15 feet high and gathered together most of the clotheslines in the neighborhood to control it. It took four youngsters to hold it. Fortunately for all, Woolman recalls, it crashed before anyone went aloft.

His next contact with flying also might have discouraged anyone of less faith. While he was a student at the University of Illinois a crude airplane crashed on the university campus. Young Woolman eagerly fell to with the pilot, helped repair the damage, and the plane finally took off.

While he was still in college, he used his summer vacation time in 1910 to attend the first world aviation meet in Rheims, France. The Delta president himself learned to fly in a World War J “Jenny.”

Delta Convair 880 planes (1960)

His first real venture in aviation was to help organize the first commercial airplane crop dusting company in 1925 at Monroe, La. The crop-dusting department still is a flourishing branch of Delta’s operations.

The techniques and modifications worked out by Woolman and the pioneer crop dusters are the prototype of today’s DDT-spraying planes which swoop low over Miami during the summer to ward off our unwelcome guests, the mosquitoes.

Carried passengers in 1929

Delta’s passenger service began in 1929, over a route from Dallas, Tex., to Jackson, Miss. Later the route was extended to Birmingham and Atlanta.

The first passenger ships were single-engine, fabric-covered Travelaires, which cruised at 90 miles an hour and carried six passengers. The Travelaires took an entire day to make the Georgia-Texas trip. A half-hour stop was scheduled on each flight at Jack-son, where passengers could have lunch and stretch their legs.

Convair-880 Delta airlines flight interior

Steadily, Delta and Woolman expanded that first small route. The Airline of the South moved into Charleston, S. C., and Savannah, Ga., Fort Worth, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Chicago and Miami.

Bigger and faster transport planes were added to the Delta fleet as quickly as they became available. The single-engine Travelaires gave way to tri-motored Stinsons. All-metal Lockheed Electras were put into service, to be followed by the ever-larger DC-4s and today’s DC-6s.

Delta’s colorful history is studded with an impressive list of ‘firsts,’ starting with that first commercial airplane crop-dusting operation.

Mail route in S. America

The first international airmail and passenger route on the west coast of South America — a 1,500-mile route along which Woolman and his associates had to create their own landing fields, chiefly by dragging rocks out of meadows — was inaugurated — successfully during the winter of 1928 by Woolman and associates.

Delta airlines stewardess in 1966
Vintage Delta airlines stewardess in 1966

The concession was won over stiff competition and high-powered negotiations on the part of wealthy German interests, and prevented the development of all-German airmail routes on the South American coast. The route later was sold to Pan American-Grace Airways and Woolman returned home to inaugurate the first passenger-carrying ”Delta Air Service.”

Delta was a partner in the first interchange service to be operated within the United States. Delta and Trans World Airline on June 1, 1948, inaugurated equipment interchange to Dayton, Columbus, Toledo and Detroit.

In the fall of the following year, Delta and American Airlines began the first one-plane southern transcontinental Florida-to-California service, with a change of crews at Dallas, where the routes of the two airlines intersect.

Later Delta, National and American were authorized to inaugurate three-way interchange schedules from Miami to Los Angeles and San Francisco via New Orleans and Dallas.

Delta Airlines vintage 1960s

Through the initiative of Edwin H. (Ed) Bishop, the energetic and enterprising sales manager here, the support of his superior officer, Laigh C. Parker, vice-president, and the help of Warren Freeman, then manager of the MacFadden Deauville, Delta launched the first airline ”package tour” to Miami six years ago.

Tagged the ”Millionaire Vacation Plan,” the package drew 46 takers the first year. The line is well over its goal of ”5,200 in ’52,” with customers still pouring into town.

Other airlines followed Delta’s lead on the packaged vacation plan, and it is estimated that all the airlines together will bring more than 17,000 summer vacationers to the Greater Miami area this year. 

Today, as Woolman sits in his office in Delta’s general headquarters in Atlanta and watches a giant DC-6 luxury Deltaliner roar down the runway, he recalls those early crop-dusting days and remarks: “The only monotonous thing about the aviation industry is the constant change.”

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Vintage Delta Airlines ad: Take a Delta jet on a dream vacation (1963)

1963 Delta Airlines

A great airline, even greater! (1972)

From The Miami Herald (Miami, Florida) August 1, 1972

Delta Airlines staff and passenger (1979)

The merger of Northeast Airlines into Delta creates a new and expanded Delta Air Lines: over 24,000 employees — all professionals. A fleet of 173 big jets. A route system 33,300 miles long, stretching to 92 great places in the US, 5 foreign lands and Puerto Rico.

Even before the merger, Delta was one of the Big Five airlines of the U.S. And in many major cities, number one.

Retro Delta Airlines reservation agent phone lines (1981)

For instance, Delta flies more people in and out of Atlanta than any other airline. More people in and out of New Orleans. More people between the Midwest and Florida. Looking at the entire route system, Delta has doubled its business in the last five years.

Vintage Delta Airlines ticket with red carbon paper (1969)

Delta’s second merger.

The beginnings of Delta go back to 1925, and a crop-dusting service. It carried its first passengers, six hardy souls, in a single-engine monoplane in 1929. Delta grew with new route awards over the years. Dallas-Atlanta. Chicago-Miami.

In 1953, Delta merged with Chicago & Southern Air Lines, giving Delta routes across the continent and into the Caribbean. At the start of this year, Delta served 75 cities border to border, coast to coast, and over the Caribbean waters.

In-flight dining service on Delta in 1981

Preview: Delta’s Wide-Ride fleet.

Delta is now flying the deluxe, wide-body 747s. In October, it will start flying the big, new DC-10. Coming in 1973, new 727s with Wide-Ride cabins and Wide-Ride L-1011s.

Meanwhile, Delta passengers will enjoy fast flights and super service on a modern, all-jet fleet of 727s, DC-8s, DC-9s and Convair 880s, along with the 747s. Delta also operates the famed Lockheed “Hercules” in all-cargo service as the L-100-20.

Vintage Delta pilots (1979)

The airline run by professionals.

While we’re telling you what Delta is, we should tell you what Delta isn’t. Delta is not indifferent. It got to be big by remembering the little things.

Everyone at Delta — by skill, training, experience and spirit — is a professional at his or her job. Delta has the best record of satisfied customers in the whole airline business.

Vintage Delta ticket counter (1981)


Much of Delta’s success (and Wall Street calls it the most successful airline in America) is a result of ingenious schedule planning. Delta’s aim is to give you a flight that leaves when you want to — leave, arrives when you want to arrive, between each pair of cities it serves. In other words: “Delta is ready when you are!”

Amazing first-class appetizers on a Delta Airlines flight (1967)

These print magazine ads appeared in different issues of Time magazine throughout 1977 — all part of a larger Delta ad campaign centering around a “meet our people” concept.

Delta Pilot Captain John Richards (1977)

John, who has been with Delta for 17 years, has flown just about every airliner from the DC-3 up. He spent 9 years in Delta’s training department, where he helped train about a third of Delta’s 3,200 pilots. Now he’s back to his first love, flying full-time as a 727 captain.

Delta Pilot Captain John Richards (1977)

Delta airlines stewardess air hostess Lorraine Summer

Delta airlines stewardess air hostess 1966

Flight attendant Susan Holland

In the 10 years she’s been flying, Susan has made a lot of pleasant memories for passengers.

Delta Airlines - Susan Holland, flight attendant (1977)

Delta Airlines Passenger service agent John Riley

John has worked on the baggage ramp, at the ticket counter, the boarding gate. He knows every second counts when he’s got just minutes to get a passenger on her flight.

Delta Airlines Passenger service agent John Riley

Delta Flight superintendent Walter Doll

He has been with Delta for 15 years, the last 5 as a FAA-licensed Flight Superintendant. Walter supervises up fo 40 flights a day over the Delta system.

Delta Flight superintendent Walter Doll

Senior Customer Service agent Carl Collins

He started out as a baggage handler. He worked behind a ticket counter. He handled the boarding gates. Now he’s a senior customer services agent. All in just 8 years.

Delta air Senior Customer Service agent Carl Collins (1977)

Glory Lost and Found: How Delta Climbed from Despair to Dominance in the Post-9/11 Era
  • Kaplan, Seth (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 445 Pages - 01/11/2016 (Publication Date) - Lightning Source Inc (Publisher)

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