West Coast Flying: Delta’s 87-Year Heritage in Los Angeles (Guest Post)

Delta, LAX - Los Angeles

Now that my daughter has arrived, I’m taking this week off. I’m happy to start the guest post parade with a visit from one of my favorite guest-posters, Delta’s Archives Manager Marie Force. Marie wrote about Delta’s history in Monroe back in 2009. Delta also sent over a great post about starting service in Africa from a Pan Am veteran in 2010. This time around, Marie is back and she dug out some great stuff on Delta’s history in Los Angeles.

Delta is proud to trace our service in Los Angeles from 1926 when Western provided the city’s first scheduled airline service.

Delta jets first landed in California in 1961, but through our merger with Western Airlines, Delta’s ties to Los Angeles go back 35 years earlier. A small Douglas M-2 biplane took off from Vail Field (in East Los Angeles, near where the 5 and 710 freeways meet) on April 17, 1926, carrying the first air mail from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City. With a stop in Las Vegas, it was a 6 1/2 hour flight. Below is Western founder Harris Hanshue handing the mail over.

WAL Hanshue and Kelly mail 1926

In May, passengers started paying $90 each to fly squeezed in beside the mail sacks. By 1927, Western Air Express had carried 209 brave customers and the city of Los Angeles accounted for 40% of the nation’s air mail.

1961 Delta Los Angeles Poster

Delta launched California’s first nonstop service to the Southeast on June 11, 1961, over the “Southern Transcontinental Route.” In Los Angeles, Douglas DC-8 and Convair 880 jets made three daily departures to Atlanta, Dallas and New Orleans. The above poster was from 1961. Below is a billboard welcoming Southerners to Los Angeles that same year.

Delta 1961 Inaugural Sign LAX

C.E. Woolman, Delta’s founder and first CEO, said to Los Angeles: “We are privileged to be here. We are going to do a good job for you. Delta doesn’t necessarily want to be the biggest airline in the country, but we want to be the best.” He’s cutting the ribbon on the new service in the photo below.

1961 Woolman Cuts Ribbon

Delta’s 1987 merger with Western Airlines, which was headquartered in Los Angeles, added routes from the city throughout the western U.S., Hawaii, Alaska, Canada and Mexico. The poster below was from 1986, just before the merger.

1986 Delta Los Angeles Poster

Transcontinental service began between LAX and New York City in 1990 and service to Asia began with flights to Tokyo and Nagoya, Japan, in 1991. Today Delta’s long relationship with the city continues with 116 peak-day departures to 40 destinations.

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13 comments on “West Coast Flying: Delta’s 87-Year Heritage in Los Angeles (Guest Post)

  1. Didn’t realize Delta didn’t start LAX – JFK until 1990, as American, United & others already flew that route. Contenental flew the route out of EWR once there hub was established.

    Congrads on the new baby, but watch out if she gets a little cranky. LOL

    1. It’s amazing how recent the rise of the truly “national” US airlines is. As I kid I recall needing to take at least a couple airlines to get into far away places. Today with all the consolidation and code sharing it seems one airline (or partner) can take you anywhere in the world.

  2. It’s strange to think of the days of Delta being a “regional” carrier. I remember flying Western back in the day and had never heard of Delta until the merger was announced in the mid-80’s. While they still have a strong presence in LA, it’s kind of sad that the strong routes Western had built up at LAX faded over the years. Yes, SLC is still a Delta (Western) powerhouse, but LAX feels different

    1. I think you’ll find that Delta flies to more places from LAX today than Western ever did. Looking at a Western schedule from right before their merger with Delta, the places they flew that Delta doesn’t today were Vancouver, Calgary, Oklahoma City, Albuquerque, Tucson, Reno, Fresno, Mazatlan, Mexico City, Ixtapa, & Acapulco (They also flew 18-seat Metros to a bunch of Southern California cities via Skywest, the system that migrated over to United). They flew to nowhere in the East (had to use SLC for their 3 East Coast cities), no International beyond Canada & Mexico (their short-lived London flights were from Denver & Anchorage), and only a handful of non-West Coast cities.

      Contrast that today with Delta’s service to New York, several Florida cities, Raleigh, Nashville, New Orleans, Kansas City, Sydney, Tokyo, Costa Rica, Belize, Cancun, Guatemala, Columbus, Indianapolis, Kona, Lihue, not to mention their hubs in Atlanta, Detroit, MSP, Cincinnati, Memphis.

      I think the difference is that Western was very much a regional airline in LAX, not a national one like Delta is now. Also I think people across the country were familiar with Western since all the trips on the Price is Right and other game shows were always on Western (usually to Mexico or Hawaii).

  3. For those that complain about airfares, consider that that 1927 $90 fare has now risen to just $100 (lowest fare before taxes), and you no longer have to ride in an open air seat squeezed next to a mailbag!

    1. That $90.00 fare in 1927 today would cost you $1,207.78. So while $90 was only for the wealthy to travel in 1927, the average person today would not be paying $1,207.78, so you don need to thing how low airfares really are today.

  4. I will never have the fondest for DL as I had for Western. After all as that bird always said, “Western Airlines, the only way to fly”. I used to love those tv ads growing up.

  5. All of us airline dorks should be required to have a regular airline history check-up.

    What did the industry look like when the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 was passed? There was the “Big Four”–AA, EA, Transcontinental and Western, and UA. We in the Middle Atlantic had barely heard of DL…of course we hadn’t heard of a lot of things or knew much of what there was west of the Susquehanna well, Pittsburgh!

    The Federal Aviation Act of 1958.

    The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. History of the CAB and who was this guy Alfred E. Kahn?

    The dates of bankruptcy for each of the majors and why did these companies file?

    I thought I knew all of this, and maybe I did…did, but a little re-visit with some history is always helpful!

    Thanks for the post.

  6. Speaking of Western Air Lines…

    My first ever flight was as a kid on a Western Air Lines DC-3 (7 rows of 2+1 seats) from Los Angeles to Edmonton on July 4, 1952. 11 or 12 stops, 13 hours, with the plane bouncing like a ball through extremely hot weather in Nevada and Utah, then rocking and rolling through a heavy storm in Wyoming, Montana, and Alberta.

    Western Air Lines….. the *only* way to fly…. oy….

    We changed our return flights: Trans-Canada to Vancouver (aircraft type unremembered, probably British built), a United DC-3 (7 2+2 rows!) to Seattle, and facing seats in the front cabin of a United DC-6B to Los Angeles with a stop in Portland. Clear weather and smooth air all the way….

  7. Isn’t it funny how it never occurs to you that a household name has such a long and distinguished history. I work for one of the first chartered banks in the US and we celebrated 150 years in business this year. I just wonder what it was like to work and bank there 150 years ago…just like I wonder what it was like to fly with Delta at the beginning.

  8. I’m sure Marie is a wonderful person, but why do folks from The Atlanta forget most aspects of NWA’s history (good and bad)? :(

    1. Neal, there’s a large exhibit on NWA’s history at the Delta museum in Atlanta, along with a vintage NWA Waco airplane. There’re also exhibits about Pan Am and Northeast (with a Northeast airplane).

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