When Did Delta Air Lines Operate Its First Flight?

It is approaching 91 years since Delta Air Lines performed its first-ever passenger service. The airline took off from Dallas, Texas, on June 17th, 1929, to head to Jackson, Mississippi, while stopping at Shreveport and Monroe, Louisiana, along the way.

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Delta is a familiar name when it comes to commercial aviation but it has come a long way since its founding. Photo: Getty Images

High ambitions

According to Delta Flight Museum, the Travel Air S-6000-B departed at 08:00 and took five hours to complete the 427-mile journey. The total time also includes a 30-minute layover in Monroe for lunch.

The S-6000-B was a high wing, single-engine monoplane. Delta acquired a unit with registration number C8878 and serial number 988. Former Delta general manager C.E Woolman highlighted that the aircraft could accommodate five passengers, a pilot, toilet facilities, and space for hand luggage. Furthermore, the cabins remained warm in cold weather, but fliers could still see the natural wonders below.

Previously, the operator was a crop-dusting company in the form of Huff Daland Dusters. In fact, it was the first commercial agricultural flying company in the United States. However, Woolman took over the company in 1928 and had grander visions for it. Along with relaunching the business as Delta Air Service, he had a plan to venture into passenger operations. Therefore he took on the S-6000-B for this purpose.

Before Delta’s incorporation, his team had some experience of flying passengers in Peru. However, Woolman was determined to venture into regular passenger services with his new operation.

This pioneering route meant that Delta became the first airline to offer an air service between Dallas and Jackson. This first flight was conducted by Arkansas airman J. D. “Johnny” Howe.

Howe had six years of experience in the air and had previously worked as an agent for the Travel Air Company. Moreover, he was one of the first people in the country to earn a commercial pilot’s license, making him the perfect man for the job.

Johnny Howe
Pilot J. D. “Johnny” Howe standing proud next to his aircraft. Photo: Delta Flight Museum

Southern hospitality

Despite the grand affair, there was only one passenger on the flight, which was Delta Air Service operations manager John S. Fox. There were no others onboard as Delta did not publicly announce the service until a day before. The airline’s competitors were rumored to be venturing into flights between Atlanta, Georgia, and Birmingham, Alabama, over the same route to Dallas. So, Delta quickly snapped at the launch to gain an edge within the industry.

The sole passenger received a warm welcome by Jackson Mayor Walter A. Scott. Later that evening, the two met with community leaders at a banquet in the city. It wasn’t until the return journey where more passengers were hosted onboard. On June 18th, 1929, a group of Jackson officials took the chance to be part of Delta’s new project.

The following three passengers joined Fox:

  • Paul Chambers, president of the Jackson Chamber of Commerce.
  • A.F. “Gus” Hawkins, Jackson city commissioner of aeronautics.
  • L.E. Foster, executive vice president of the Jackson Chamber of Commerce.

The westward trip had a layover once again in Monroe. This time, the travelers were welcomed by city, parish, and chamber of commerce figures. They had lunch at improvised tables in the field’s hangar before heading to Dallas.

These guests seemed to have an excellent experience, flying mostly at approximately 5,000 feet. After arriving at their destination in Texas, the Jackson officials sent the following telegram, as shared by the Delta Flight Museum.

“First westward trip Delta Airways big success. Arrived at three-forty, twenty minutes ahead of schedule after four hours flying time. Had wonderful receptions at Monroe, Shreveport and Dallas. Believe the establishment of this line will mean much to Jackson in a commercial way. Had delightful trip, this being the only real way to travel.”

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A group of passengers having lunch in Monroe during a stopover on one of Delta’s early flights. Photo: Delta Flight Museum

Market growth

The next day, this group headed back to Mississippi on the same aircraft. Monroe would once again play a part in the experience of Delta’s new passenger service. While taking a break in the northern Louisiana city, the carrier picked up its first-ever paying customer. This passenger was W.C. Walsh, a factory representative for Dodge Brothers’ motor cars.

Altogether, fares from Dallas to Jackson were $47.25 ($708 today) for a single flight or $90.00 ($1,349 today) for a round trip. This was a tri-weekly service, consisting of three eastbound flights on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and three westbound flights on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. 

The majority of these early passengers of the carrier were businessmen needing to get across the country quickly. Leisure trips were rare during the time, as flying was still very much a luxury. Woolman shared that 80 percent of the firm’s customers were men with briefcases that were flying in an attempt to speed up their business.

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Delta’s headquarters in Monroe. Photo: Delta Flight Museum

Delta retiree Wallace Harmon shared that the company had no marketing department at the time. Despite this, the airline managed to make do with what it had.

It placed adverts in local newspapers and took part in events such as air shows. Additionally, top salesman C.E Woolman built excellent links in local and national communities, along with government officials.

Also, in larger cities, there was a city traffic manager from the middle of the 1930s. This employee would go to hotels and check the brochure racks to be sure that the airline’s timetables were there. Additionally, they would also make calls on the hotel porter as that was the contact that guests would call to get reservations on airlines.

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A poster promoting one of Delta’s initial routes. Photo: Delta Flight Museum

Successful journey

Nonetheless, Delta seemed to do just fine with its marketing approach, expanding into one of the most recognizable airlines in the US over the decades. The Atlanta-based carrier still holds a significant presence across southern states today, and this initial service played a vital part in its progress.

What are your thoughts on Delta’s first passenger flights? Have you been on any airline’s initial commercial services across the globe? Let us know what you think of these events in the comment section.