Western Airlines (IATA: WA, ICAO: WAL, Call sign: Western) was a large airline based in California, with operations throughout the western United States including Alaska and Hawaii, and western Canada, as well as to New York City, Boston, Washington D.C. and Miami on the U.S. east coast and also into Mexico. The airline also served other international destinations such as London, England and Nassau, Bahamas during its existence. Western had hubs at Los Angeles International Airport, Salt Lake City International Airport, and the former Stapleton International Airport in Denver. Before it merged with Delta Air Lines it was headquartered at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). The company’s slogan for many years was “Western Airlines….The Only Way To Fly!”
In 1925, the United States Postal Service began to give airlines contracts to carry air mail throughout the country. Western Airlines first incorporated in 1925 as Western Air Express by Harris Hanshue. It applied for, and was awarded, the 650-mile long Contract Air Mail Route #4 (CAM-4) from Salt Lake City, Utah to Los Angeles. On 17 April 1926, Western’s first flight took place with a Douglas M-2 airplane. It began offering passenger services a month later, when the first commercial passenger flight took place at Woodward Field. Ben F. Redman (then president of the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce) and J.A. Tomlinson perched atop U.S. mail sacks and flew with pilot C.N. “Jimmy” James on his regular eight-hour mail delivery flight to Los Angeles.
Transcontinental &Western Airlines
The company reincorporated in 1928 as Western Air Express Corp. Then, in 1930, purchased Standard Air Lines, subsidiary of Aero Corp. of Ca. founded in 1926 by Paul E. Richter, Jack Frye and Walter Hamilton. WAE with Fokker aircraft merged with Transcontinental Air Transport to form Trans World Airlines (TWA).
General Air Lines
In 1934, Western Air Express was severed from TWA and briefly changed its name to General Air Lines, returning to the name Western Air Express after several months. In a 1934 press release by the company, it called itself the Western Air Division of General Air Lines.
In 1941 Western Air Express changed its name to Western Air Lines (WAL) and later to Western Airlines. The carrier also billed itself as Western Airlines International at one point. During the 1940s, Western acquired a controlling interest in Inland Air Lines, which operated as a subsidiary with this air carrier’s schedules appearing in Western system timetables at the time before Inland was fully merged into Western during the early 1950s. After World War II, Western was awarded a route from Los Angeles to Denver via Las Vegas, but financial problems forced Western to sell the route as well as Douglas DC-6 new aircraft delivery positions to United Air Lines in 1947. Western was later awarded a route between Minneapolis and Salt Lake City via Casper, Wyoming, thus allowing the airline to develop from a large regional airline into a major mainline air carrier. This growth also enabled the airline to introduce Douglas DC-6 (DC-6B models), Lockheed L-188 Electra turboprops and eventually Boeing 707 jet service. The airline’s president was Terrell “Terry” Drinkwater. Drinkwater got into a dispute with the administration in Washington D.C. that severely hampered WAL’s growth. Pressured in a famous phone call by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to “buy American made aircraft”, Drinkwater reportedly responded: “Mr. President, you run your country and let me run my airline!” For years after this exchange, the federal Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) would not award Western new routes while their major competitors including United and American grew enormous even though all of Western’s airliners were of U.S. manufacture while their competitor’s fleets included aircraft that had been built in Europe by British or French companies.
A restoration of a Convair 240 sports a Western Airlines paint scheme.
In August 1953 Western was serving 38 airports. By June 1968, that number had only grown to 42 airports.
Western entered the jet age in 1960 when it introduced Boeing 707 jetliners (B707-139 models) with flights between Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, OR and Seattle. In 1967 WAL acquired Pacific Northern Airlines, which served the state of Alaska from Anchorage and Seattle. In the late 1960s Western aimed for an all-jet fleet, adding Boeing 707-320s, 727-200s and 737-200s to their fleet of 720Bs. The two leased B707-139s had previously been removed from the fleet in favor of the turbofan powered Boeing 720B. Lockheed L-188 Electra turboprops were then replaced with new Boeing 737-200s.
In 1973 Western added nine McDonnell Douglas DC-10-10s, marketing their wide-body cabins as “DC-10 Spaceships”. These aircraft had seating for 46 first class passengers and 193 in coach, and a lower level galley for food preparation.
Boeing 720B with the old livery at Seattle 1972
Western Airlines Boeing 727
Western was headquartered in Los Angeles, California. Following the Airline Deregulation Act in 1978, the airline’s principal hubs underwent an evolution and were eventually reduced to hub operations at just two airports: Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC). Prior to airline deregulation, Western operated smaller hubs in Anchorage, Alaska (ANC), Denver (DEN), Las Vegas (LAS), Minneapolis/St. Paul (MSP) and San Francisco (SFO). By the spring of 1987 shortly before Western was acquired by Delta Air Lines, the airline operated only two hubs with a major operation in Salt Lake City and a secondary hub in Los Angeles.
At their peak in the 1970s and 1980s Western flew to many cities across the western United States, and to Mexico (Mexico City, Puerto Vallarta, Acapulco, Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo and Mazatlán), Alaska (Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Ketchikan, Kodiak and other Alaskan destinations), Hawaii (Honolulu, Kahului, Kona, and Hilo), and Canada (Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton). New York City, Washington, D.C., Boston and Miami were added on the east coast as well as Chicago and St. Louis in the midwest, and also destinations in Texas (Austin, Dallas/Ft. Worth, El Paso, Houston and San Antonio). Western also operated numerous intrastate flights within California, competing with Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA), Air California/AirCal, Air West/Hughes Airwest and United Airlines. In addition, Western operated “Islander” service with Boeing 707-320, Boeing 720B and McDonnell Douglas DC-10 jetliners to Hawaii from a number of mainland U.S. cities in its route system that previously did not have direct flights to the 50th state. In 1973, the airline was operating nonstop “Islander” service between Honolulu and Anchorage, Los Angeles, Oakland, CA, San Diego, San Francisco and San Jose, CA with one stop, no change of plane “Islander” flights being operated between Honolulu and Las Vegas, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Phoenix, Sacramento and Salt Lake City. In 1981, the airline was also operating nonstop DC-10 jet service between Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada and Honolulu as well.
One of the airline’s smallest jet service destinations was West Yellowstone, Montana, located near Yellowstone National Park. Western operated seasonal service into West Yellowstone Airport during the summer months with Boeing 737-200 jetliners, which had replaced Lockheed L-188 Electra turboprop service into this small airfield. During the 1970s and 1980s, Western served a number of small cities in the western U.S. with Boeing 737-200 jet service including Butte, MT, Casper, WY, Cheyenne, WY, Helena, MT, Idaho Falls, ID, Pierre, SD, Pocatello, ID, Rapid City, SD and Sheridan, WY. The 737 replaced Electra propjet service to all of these destinations. Western also used its larger jetliners to serve other small communities as well: in 1968, the airline was operating nonstop Boeing 720B service between the Annette Island Airport serving Ketchikan, Alaska and Seattle, and in 1973 was flying the 720B nonstop between Kodiak, Alaska and Seattle.
In the late 1970s Western Airlines (WAL) and Continental Airlines (CAL) agreed to merge. A dispute broke out over what to call the combined airline: Western-Continental or Continental-Western. An infamous coin toss occurred. Bob Six, the colorful founder of CAL, demanded that Continental be “tails” in deference to their marketing slogan “We Really Move Our Tail for You! Continental Airlines: the Proud Bird with the Golden Tail”. The coin flip turned up “heads”. Six was so disappointed he called the merger off.
In 1981 Western Airlines began international flights from Anchorage and Denver to London Gatwick Airport with a single McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30 intercontinental wide body jetliner. At one point as an extension of the service to the U.K., Western operated one stop, no change of plane DC-10-30 flights on the polar route between Honolulu and London via a stop in Anchorage. The London to Denver DC-10-30 flight featured continuing no change of plane service to Las Vegas and Los Angeles with the same routing being flown in reverse. Another international route at this time was one stop, no change of plane service between Los Angeles and Nassau, Bahamas, which was flown with a DC-10 via a stop in Miami. As Western extended its network to destinations on the east coast such as New York City, Washington, D.C. and Boston, as well as to Chicago and St. Louis in the midwest, Albuquerque and El Paso in the west, and Houston, New Orleans, Miami and Fort Lauderdale in the south; the airline thus became a prominent sponsor of the Bob Barker television show The Price Is Right in order to make potential customers in the eastern U.S. more aware of their new presence and routes.
During the late 1980s, Western entered into a code sharing agreement with SkyWest Airlines, which was an independent and growing commuter air carrier at the time. SkyWest operated Embraer EMB-120 Brasilia and Fairchild Swearingen Metroliner turboprop aircraft as Western Express providing passenger feed to and from Western mainline flights at Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix, San Diego and other Western mainline destinations In the spring of 1987, SkyWest operating as Western Express was serving 36 destinations in Arizona, California, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming. Western also entered a similar code sharing agreement with Alaska-based South Central Air, a small commuter airline that operated as Western Express as well, providing passenger feed to and from Western flights serving Anchorage. Several destinations in southern Alaska including Homer, Kenai, Soldotna were served by South Central Air operating as Western Express. Following the acquisition of Western by Delta Air Lines, SkyWest became a Delta Connection code sharing air carrier.
Delta Air Lines merger
In the early 1980s, Air Florida tried to buy Western Airlines, but they were able to purchase only 16 percent of the airline’s stock. Finally, on September 9, 1986 Western Airlines and Delta Air Lines entered into an agreement and plan of merger. The merger agreement was approved by the United States Department of Transportation on December 11, 1986. On December 16, 1986, shareholder approval of the merger was conferred and Western Airlines became a wholly owned subsidiary of Delta. The Western brand was discontinued and the employee workforces were fully merged on April 1, 1987. All of Western’s aircraft were repainted in Delta’s livery, including ten McDonnell Douglas DC-10 wide body trijets. Delta eventually decided to eliminate the DC-10s from the combined fleet as they already operated a considerable number of Lockheed L-1011 TriStar wide body jetliners—a similar type when compared with the DC-10. Western’s former Salt Lake City hub has become a major Delta hub, and Delta currently uses Los Angeles International Airport as a major gateway and hub as well.