Why Delta Air Lines Took On The DC-3

Delta Air Lines had a long-term relationship with Douglas aircraft that lasted throughout most of the 20th century and until this year. One of the planes that helped the Atlanta-based carrier on its journey is the DC-3. Let’s take a look at the type’s history with the operator.

Delta DC-3
Delta Air Lines operated the Douglas DC-3 for a total of 20 years between 1940 and 1960. Photo: The Delta Flight Museum

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Enabling profits

Even though the DC-3 would be crucial in Delta’s development, American Airlines had a vital role in the aircraft’s introduction. Cyrus Rowlett “C. R.” Smith, the president of American, sought two new planes. He wanted a lower version of the DC-2, which would carry 21 passengers during daytime services, and he also urged for an aircraft with railroad-type sleeping berths. This unit would transport 14 customers on overnight operations.

Following the DC-3’s introduction in 1936, the plane took commercial aviation to the next level. Boeing emphasizes how airlines could report healthier financials thanks to the aircraft. Therefore, it’s no surprise that carriers across the United States, such as Delta, jumped at the opportunity to snap the type up.

“The Douglas DC-3, which made air travel popular and airline profits possible, is universally recognized as the greatest airplane of its time. Some would argue that it is the greatest of all time,” Boeing said on its website.

“The DC-3 was not only comfortable and reliable, it also made air transportation profitable. American’s C.R. Smith said the DC-3 was the first airplane that could make money just by hauling passengers, without relying on government subsidies. As a result, by 1939, more than 90 percent of the nation’s airline passengers were flying on DC-2s and DC-3s.”

The Delta Flight Museum even admits that the fact that most carriers were flying DC-3 fleets by 1940 was a key reason for Delta to take the type on. By 1940, the plane was carrying 80% of the airline traffic across the globe. So, it was only natural that Delta was part of this movement.

Plenty of milestones were achieved with the DC-3. It was the first aircraft with the fuel capacity to fly a scheduled nonstop service between New York and Chicago. The type was also the first plane to have a planned galley for food service.

Delta Air Lines Douglas DC-3 Cabin
It was an exciting time for airlines. Photo: The Delta Flight Museum

The first arrivals

Delta acquired its first five units directly from the Douglas Aircraft Company. Each one had cost $115,000 (~$2,137,000 today). However, the rest of Delta’s DC-3s taken on between 1944-1949 were former military planes. 

Ship 40, holding registration N28340, was arrived at Delta’s facilities on November 29th, 1940. This plane was christened as City of Atlanta with Coca-Cola, the Georgia capital’s famous soft drink.

After that, Ship 41, holding registration N28341, was delivered on January 4th, 1941, alongside Ship 43, registration with registration N28343. The latter was christened as City of Miami with orange juice, Florida’s popular beverage.

Delta Air Lines DC-3
The arrival of the DC-3 was a grand occasion. Photo: The Delta Flight Museum

City of Atlanta performed Delta’s first DC-3 scheduled service on Christmas Eve, 1940. It flew from Atlanta, Georgia, to Birmingham, Alabama. After that, Ship 42 entered service on January 19th, 1941, serving between Atlanta and Fort Worth, Texas, at a duration of six hours and a cost of $38.50 one way ($69.30 roundtrip). Four stops were also made along the way.

Passengers onboard were treated to boxed lunches of fried chicken or ham, salad, and cookies. Drinks included tea, coffee, and ice water. Of course, an abundance of Coca-Cola was also on hand.

Delta Air Lines Douglas DC-3 Interior
Delta was keen to keep passengers comfortable during their flights. Photo: The Delta Flight Museum

Adapting to the times

Following the US’ entrance into the realm of World War II, six of Delta’s DC-3s joined the military. However, the airline kept four units flying during this period.

After the war, Delta launched its early cargo service with the DC-3s. Operations were soon conducted with modified DC-3s, or Douglas C-47s, with reinforced fuselage floors and large cargo doors.

Delta C-47
The Delta Cargo Department was launched in 1945. Photo: The Delta Flight Museum

Sadly, there was a fatal incident involving one of Delta’s DC-3s on April 22nd, 1947. Registration NC49657 was destroyed following a crash with a small plane at Columbus, Georgia. Eight of Delta’s senior managers were on the plane while conducting a survey flight. They all passed away with the pilot.

The right choice

Delta continued flying the DC-3 well into the following decade. In 1950, Delta modified its units to serve 25 customers. Moreover, boarding stairs were introduced.

Undoubtedly, Delta was keen to give its passengers high-quality service with the DC-3. Delta was proud of the new features that came with the plane. A brochure shared by the Delta Flight Museum shows how much the airline wanted to communicate the upgrades to its passengers. Altogether, the carrier made several introductions based on popular demand.

“Now the DC-3 has been enlarged to carry more passengers, yet with all the seats in pairs and no triples. Makes it easier to get seats on rush hour flights; makes it easier to get space for connections with Delta’s long-range DC-6s and DC-4s,” Delta told its customers in the brochure.

“Notice the new steps. They fold down as part of the door; you can step off or on just seconds after the engines are quiet…no waiting for the steps to be rolled out the plane. They’re lighted at night too. Alongside steps is a low-level cargo door, for easy loading and more minutes saved per stop.”

Delta Air Lines DC-3 Passengers
There was added convenience with the DC-3. Photo: The Delta Flight Museum

The evolution continues

Delta also took a liking to the next model in Douglas’ flagship series. The DC-4 only arrived six years after the airline took on the DC-3. It had double the passenger capacity and for times the range of its predecessor.

However, it wasn’t the DC-4 that forced the retirement of the DC-3. The newer model actually was phased out before, having performed its last flight in 1953.

It was the Convair 340 and 440 models that replaced the DC-3. Delta was fond of these planes as they were faster and more comfortable. They are also able to serve the smaller cities that the airline operated from.

So, the final DC-3 left Delta’s operations on October 29th. 1960. All of the airline’s units were then let go by spring 1963.

Altogether, the DC-3 revolutionized mainstream aviation. The plane’s capacity, speed, and economical services made commercial passenger operations profitable for the first time. This factor undoubtedly pushed the industry in the right direction and helped airlines become household names in subsequent decades.

Notably, Delta is still standing today. Perhaps if the DC-3 didn’t make it easier for the carrier to report profits, the company wouldn’t currently be operating in the way we know it.

What are your thoughts about Delta Air Lines’ Douglas DC-3 aircraft? Would you have liked to hit the skies with this plane? Let us know what you think of the type in the comment section.