David C. Garrett – The CEO That Led Delta Through Deregulation

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David C. Garrett Jr became the fourth Delta Air Lines chief executive officer in its history in 1978. He had the responsibility of leading the company through one of the most crucial times in United States aviation. The businessman became CEO the same year that the Airline Deregulation Act passed and just before another global oil crisis. Let’s take a look at his journey with the Atlanta-based carrier through the years.

Delta 727
Delta Air Lines had to face industry shifts during Garrett’s time as CEO. Photo: Hunter-Desportes via Wikimedia Commons

Rising through the ranks

Garrett was born on July 6th, 1922 in Pickens, South Carolina, and served in the Army Air Corps during World War II. After the war ended, he would begin a long-term career with Delta. According to the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame, he became a reservations agent in July 1946 before working his way up to president in November 1971. Subsequently, he became chief executive on February 1st, 1978, and then chairman of the board on October 28th, 1983.

The leader is often remembered for his appreciation of Delta’s employees during his tenure. Ultimately, There was mutual respect between him and the airline’s staff. The fact that he climbed through the different levels of the company may have helped him value its people. Nonetheless, this aspect undoubtedly helped the business through a troubling period in the US aviation market.

In the same year Garrett’s appointment as CEO, Delta began transatlantic service for the first time with flights from its home of Atlanta to London, and the following year, services to Frankfurt were added. Notably, the airline soon became the first operator across the globe to board one million passengers in one city in a single month. This occurred in Atlanta in August 1979.

Delta AIr Lines Lockheed L-l 01 1-500 1979
Delta was making good progress amid Garrett’s appointment. Photo: Getty Images

Tough conditions

There were many more groundbreaking achievements under Garrett’s leadership. For instance, in 1981, Delta launched its frequent flyer program, which would go on to become SkyMiles in the following decade.

However, the most significant moves came as a result of the tough industry climate following factors such as deregulation and the rise in oil prices. After reporting profits for 35 years in a row, Delta posted a net loss in 1982. During this time. Delta sought its first Boeing 767 but did not have the funds at the time to take on the widebody. Subsequently, in an effort to show their appreciation for the company, Delta employees spearheaded Project 767 to raise $30 million to pay for Delta’s first unit of the type.

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Subsequently, in Atlanta on December 15th, 1982, over 7,000 members of staff employees, their friends, and media members welcomed Ship 102, which went by the moniker of The Spirit of Delta. At the time, Garrett shared that that Project 767 reflects what makes Delta unique, which is the airline’s people. When looking back at his experience with the airline, he said that one of his most precious memories was this event. Altogether, it was an emotional moment for the industry veteran.

Spirit of Delta
The arrival of the Delta Air Lines’ first Boeing 767 was a heartwarming occasion for the airline. Photo: The Delta Flight Museum

Addressing the concerns

During the mid-1980s, Delta was the fifth-largest carrier in the US. However, competition became tight. Moreover, the airline had a decent presence on the East Coast but did not have as much control across the country. So, management had to make important decisions to ensure a strong future for the company.

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In an effort to keep up with low ticket prices, Delta turned to innovative technology. It used new computer software to forecast demand and provide the best mix of full-price and bargain fates for the 86 million seats that it was offering each year.

Moreover, the carrier began to establish new hubs in Dallas and Cincinnati to balance the increase in competition in Georgia. Along with this, it started to partner with operators such as Japan Airlines and Western Airlines to attract new passengers.

With Garrett at the helm, the connection with Western was taken a step further in 1986 with a merger. This was a move that would help shape Delta’s future in the following years.

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David C. Garrett Delta CEO
The executive’s expertise helped Delta weather the storm and the airline ultimately went on to excel in the industry in subsequent decades. Photo: Getty Images

Overcoming the challenges

Altogether, Delta is one of the legacy carriers that managed to survive the difficulties that the industry faced in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Many of the airline’s rivals disappeared during and following this period. However, thanks to the help of strong leadership, Delta withstood the pressure.

“Dave Garrett was the very embodiment of Delta — a keeper of its invaluable traditions but also a leader who led the expansion into the Western U.S., elevating the air line into a powerful national carrier,” former Delta CEO Jerry Grinstein said, as shared by the Delta Retiree Connection.

“It was during Dave’s tenure that the people of Delta gave a 767 to the company, a perfect symbol of what make’s Delta unique. That gift also represents the continuing trust and respect at every level of the company that is Dave’s very special legacy.”

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The nose of a Delta Air Lines Boeing 777-200ER dedicated to
Delta Air Lines dedicated a Boeing 777-200LR to David C. Garrett Jr. Photo: Getty Images

41 years with Delta

Garrett retired on August 1st, 1987, and remained on the board until 1994. He passed away on June 2nd, 2012 at the age of 89. At the time of the passing another Delta CEO, Richard Anderson, spoke of Garrett’s legacy.

“He was a great leader of Delta and we are sad at his passing but so thankful for the great legacy he left behind at Delta,” Anderson said, as per the Delta Retiree Connection.

“From the Delta family, we extend our condolences to his family.”

Altogether, the words from subsequent CEOs highlight the impact that Garrett has had on the airline. His legacy will continue to be felt in Delta’s future.

What are your thoughts about David C. Garrett Jr’s time at Delta Air Lines? Do you have any memories of his tenure at the carrier? Let us know what you think of the executive’s work in the comment section. 

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