The Story Of California-Based Carrier Western Airlines

For a fledgling airline in the 1920s, a contract to deliver mail for the United States Postal Service was a secure way to get the propellers spinning. On April 17, 1926, a Western Air Express Douglas M-2 aircraft departed Salt Lake City, Utah, bound for Los Angeles. The airline had a fleet of six Douglas M-2s and 24 employees.

On September 9, 1986, after a few name changes that ended up back at Western Express, the airline announced it had agreed to merge with Delta Air Lines. It became a wholly-owned Delta subsidiary on December 19, and on April 1, 1987, the operations of Western Express and Delta officially merged, and the Western brand was gone. In its sixty-seven years, Western pioneered many airline firsts, introduced new aircraft types, acquired other airlines, used movie stars and entertainers in its advertising and had its own animated bird slogan – “It’s the oooooonly way to fly!”

Within weeks of starting the mail-run, Western introduced passenger services, with passengers sitting on mail sacks, and in 1928 was the first airline to fly a tri-motor aircraft, the Fokker F-10. It developed a series of 37 weather stations along its Los Angeles-Salt Lake City route and with Boeing, developed the first air-to-ground radio. In the mid-1930s, it introduced the Boeing 247 and the Fokker F-32, a four-engine wooden airplane that carried 32 passengers. It had the world’s most extensive air system, covering 16,000 miles with 40 aircraft and in 1938, placed typewriters onboard for passenger use.


Western Express set the model that many have followed

Western Express added the Boeing 247 to its fleet in 1935 and set the standard for a new generation of airliners. Photo: Getty Images

In 1930 it purchased Standard Air Lines and then merged with Transcontinental Air Transport to form Transcontinental & Western Air (TWA), later known as Trans World Airlines. For the next 20 years, it bought or merged with various airlines and went through various name changes. It had added Douglas DC-6B aircraft and Boeing’s B707-139 on services between Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. Later that decade, it added Boeing B737-200s and McDonnell Douglas DC10-10s, marketing them as “DC-10 Spaceships” which, as Western Airlines, it flew nonstop Los Angeles to Miami.

In 1972 two Western Boeings 727s flying from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles with 90 passengers were hijacked in May and June. The first was flown to Cuba and the second to Algiers, after changing to a Boeing 720B in San Francisco. At its peak, Western flew to cities across the US and to Mexico, Alaska, Hawaii and Canada. Airline deregulation in the 1978 hurt Western financially, leaving the airline with hubs in Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. There was a failed merger attempt with Continental Airlines and in the 1980s Western flew Honolulu to Anchorage to London Gatwick with a DC-130, later switched to Denver-London and then discontinued.


The end is in sight

In 1986 Western Express was merged with Delta Air Lines and disappeared off the radar on April 1, 1987. Photo: Getty Images

In 1984 it barely escaped bankruptcy and in 1986 entered an operating agreement with SkyWest Airlines, naming the service Western Express. In December that year shareholders voted to accept a merger with Delta Air Lines, by now a 16% shareholder, and Western Airlines became a wholly owned subsidiary of Delta. The operations officially merged on April 1, 1987 and all of Western’s aircraft were painted in Delta’s livery. Western ended with 78 aircraft; 46 Boeing 727-200, 19 B737-200, three B737-300 and 10 McDonnell Douglas DC-10-10 aircraft. As it was operating Lockheed L-1011 TriStars at the time, Delta eliminated the DC-10s form the merged fleet.

Way back in the 1920s, Western Express was ahead of its time and eventually time caught up with it. Airline deregualtion in the US changed how the industry worked and when the music stopped Western had to share a chair with Delta. But it was one hell of a ride before the end.

Does anyone have any Western memories thay want to share?

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