Western Airlines had a long and storied history spanning six decades. Like many early airlines, the carrier was founded with a mail contract and tasked with transporting mail for the government. In the early days of aviation, the U.S. Postal Service helped to provide the founding of numerous airlines. The time and speed saved by air travel made airmail the preferred method of communication in the United States.
Western was founded in 1925 as Western Air Express by Harris Hanshue to fly an awarded airmail contract between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. The airlines first flight took place in April of 1926 using a Douglas M-2. A month later, the airline began carrying passengers, with its first passenger sitting atop sacks of mail on its way to Los Angeles. In 1930, the airline merged Transcontinental Air Transport to form Transcontinental & Western Air (TWA), not to be confused with Trans World Airlines.
In the mid-1930s, the airline added the then new Boeing 247 and continued to expand its passenger operations on the West Coast. By 1934, Western Air Express diverged from TWA and briefly changed its name to General Air Lines before switching back to its previous name. The next decade would be one of change for Western Air Express. In 1941, the airline changed names again, this time to Western Air Lines.
Three years later, the airline purchased Inland Air Lines, which would operate as a subsidiary until fully integrating in the early 1950s. Around the same time, the airline began experiencing financial difficulties, forcing it to give up its delivery slots for the Douglas DC-6. However, the airline quickly recovered and entered a period of growth and renewal. In the early 1950s, the airline was awarded the route between Salt Lake City and Minneapolis via Casper, Wyo.
This growth allowed the airline to purchase new and larger aircraft, including the Douglas DC-6 and the Lockheed L-188 Electra. However, the airline’s route growth would soon become stagnant. Western’s president at the time, Terrell Drinkwater, got into an argument with President Dwight Eisenhower over the manufacture of the airline’s aircraft, with Eisenhower wanting Drinkwater to purchase American-made aircraft. This disagreement led to the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Board not awarding new routes to Western for years.
In 1960, Western entered the jet age with the new Boeing 707. The aircraft began flying the airline’s trunk routes along the West Coast. By the end of the decade, Western would become an all-jet airline with the introduction of the Boeing 727 and the Boeing 737 to replace the remaining Lockheed Electras. In 1967, Western acquired Pacific Northern Airlines which added Alaska to the route map as well as the Boeing 720 to the fleet.
Moving into the 1970s, the airline entered a new widebody era with the addition of the Douglas DC-10. The 70s also saw a major shift in the aviation market in the United States. In 1978 the Airline Deregulation Act was introduced in the United States which allowed airlines to add routes without government approval. This allowed Western to greatly expand eastward.
Deregulation also allowed the airline to consolidate hubs into just Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. At its peak, the Western route network stretched from the Hawaiian islands to the Bahamas. The airline had also expanded north and south into both Canada and Mexico. At the end of the decade, Western attempted a merger with Continental Airlines. The deal, however, fell through on a coin flip over the new airline’s name.
The early 1980s saw the airline expand further overseas with nonstop routes to London from Denver and Anchorage. Around the same time, the airline was subject to an attempted buyout from Air Florida to help expand their presence on the west coast. However, the airline was only able to purchase 16 percent of Western Airlines before running into financial difficulties. The late 1980s saw the airline enter an agreement with Skywest Airlines to operate regional service under the Western Express banner.
In 1986, Western entered into an agreement with Delta Air Lines to merge. The deal received shareholder approval in December of 1986, at which point Western became a subsidiary of Delta. The airline was fully completed on April 1, 1987, with the Western name fading into the history books. The entire Western fleet was repainted into the Delta livery; however, Delta decided to retire the DC-10s in favor of the Lockheed L-1011.
Although the Western name has become a footnote in the history of Delta Air Lines, the airline’s legacy remains. Western’s hubs in Los Angeles and Salt Lake City are still major hubs for Delta. Similarly, Western’s relationship with Skywest has continued, with SkyWest continuing to operate Delta Connection flights today. Without the merger of Western, Delta’s current footprint in the United States would undoubtedly be much different.
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