Delta Air Lines Nears 43 Years Of Transatlantic Operations

This month marks 43 years since Delta Air Lines first hopped across the Atlantic Ocean. On April 30th, 1978, the legacy carrier departed its home of Atlanta, Georgia, to head to London’s Gatwick Airport for the first time. This inauguration would kick off a successful long-term transatlantic venture for the operator, which it still maintains today.

Delta Air Lines Gatwick
Now operating at Heathrow, Delta Air Lines originally launched its transatlantic services to London’s other major international airport, Gatwick. Photo The Delta Flight Museum

The right arsenal for the big launch

It was Delta’s Lockheed L-1011 that got the ball rolling for the airline and its transatlantic operations. The carrier introduced this trijet model in 1973, in the form of the L-1011-1, and the firm would go on to fly 70 units of the wider family in total.

Notably, the company held 56 L-1011s at one time. This factor meant that it held the largest fleet of the type across the commercial aviation spectrum. Looking back at the close relationship between the airline and the aircraft, the jet was the perfect model to take Delta to the next level.

The firm had already been operating successfully when it came to international operations across the Americas. In 1978, it was running services to the likes of the Bahamas, Canada, and Venezuela. But heading across the Atlantic with scheduled flights was a significant step at the time.

Delta Air Lines Lockheed L-1011 TriStar
Delta was the first airline to fly with three of the first generation commercial widebodies at the same time, with the Boeing 747, Douglas DC-10, and the L-1011 models all forming part of its fleet. Photo: Getty Images

High expectations

R. S. Maurer, who was Delta’s vice chairman of the board, knew that the route to London would be a success. During the inaugural flight that left Hartsfield, he shared that the move would further ramp up Atlanta’s presence on the global stage.

“Delta is confident that this new Atlanta-London air route will be a major catalyst in an expansion of international business and tourism here,” Maurer shared in a statement shared by Delta.

“Today is a dream come true. For Delta, this is a dream of more than a decade in length. For several of you here, I suspect that you have for even longer a period waited for Atlanta and Georgia to take this great step forward as a vital world air transportation center.”

Delta L-1011 London Launch
Delta leased two L-1011-100s from fellow American outfit TWA, as the variant had additional fuel capacity and higher takeoff weight, which was required for the long transoceanic journey. Photo The Delta Flight Museum

Looking back, Maurer’s predictions were justified. Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International has gone on to become the busiest airport in the whole of North America. In 2019 alone, the site served over 110 million people. This figure is over 20 million greater than second-place Los Angeles International’s achievement.

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Taking it even further

Nonetheless, even though service kicked off in 1978, Delta didn’t become a powerhouse across the pond overnight. It added additional routes to Europe over the next decade, but it was Pan American’s decline that catalyzed Delta’s stronghold.

In the summer of 1991, numerous companies began bidding for Pan Am’s assets as the legendary airline was seeking the securement of much-needed funds to pay creditors. Delta beat the likes of American Airlines, TWA, and United Airlines to the race with a $1.39 billion (~$2.70 billion today) offer. With this move, the airline took over Pan Am’s transatlantic and shuttle routes. Overall, it became a major force to be reckoned with.

Pan Am Boeing 747-100 being pushed-back by a tug at night
Despite being an American icon, Pan Am’s fortunes fell considerably during the 1980s, and it ceased operations in December 1991. Photo Getty Images

The new transatlantic services began on November 1st, 1991. Additionally, Delta took over Pan Am’s hub operations at New York JFK and Frankfurt. With a strong presence at major airports on both sides of the Ocean, the Georgian carrier’s fate was sealed. Practically overnight, Delta had tripled its transatlantic offerings.

Delta Air Lines Europe 1991
Delta didn’t waste any time to start flying on its newly-acquired routes from Pan Am. Photo The Delta Flight Museum

Maintaining its presence

The airline has been flying to approximately 30 destinations in Europe in recent years. From Ireland to Greece, it has the continent covered.

Amid the pandemic, the global aviation industry has been rocked. Travel bans and restrictions have largely forced carriers to operate skeleton services for most of the year. However, albeit less busy than usual, Delta continues to serve Europe despite the tough conditions and still maintains flights to London from Atlanta after over four decades. It even has a presence across other United Kingdom airports with flights from around the United States.

Delta Airbus A330-200
The airline deploys its mix of A330, A350, and 767 widebody aircraft well on its long-haul routes. Photo: Getty Images

Overall, Delta hasn’t shied away from trying something new and then scaling up over the years. It started as a humble crop-dusting business in the southern states of the US in the early 20th century. It then took risks that paid off to keep growing each decade to become a worldwide operation. The airline wasn’t comfortable with just being another transatlantic operator. It continued to make moves to expand on its services across the oceans and reach destinations on further continents.

Similarly, fellow US operator, JetBlue, is also launching transatlantic services for the first time this year. This carrier also isn’t afraid to try its hand at new ventures. Delta will undoubtedly be keeping a close eye on the New York-based airline’s progress in this field as long-haul travel recovers in the future. Regardless, Delta has shown its strength across the Atlantic since debuting these operations 43 years ago. With eight decades in the industry, the carrier will be ensuring that its growth continues in the next chapter of aviation history.

What are your thoughts about Delta Air Lines’ transatlantic operations since they first launched back in April 1978? Have you flown across the Atlantic with the carrier on any of its routes over the years? Let us know what you think of the airline and these operations in the comment section.