At 86, Delta's ex-CEO still leaving his mark

The man who brought the world's biggest airline into the jet age finally has his name on a jet.

At 86, former Delta Air Lines CEO David C. Garrett Jr. walks haltingly with the aid of a metal cane. But the Pickens, S.C., native can still cite the minutiae of long-ago airline mergers with the same detailed ease that he rolls off jet-engine models and how they helped power the company he once ran.

He has brushed shoulders with presidents, aviation legends and even oddball billionaires. And through the arc of his storied career, Garrett played a pivotal role in making Atlanta-based Delta the global airline it has become.

Delta, which marks its 80th year of passenger service Wednesday, chose the run-up of that historic event to honor Garrett, its oldest living chief executive. At a ceremony last week, his name and signature were emblazoned across the front of a Boeing 777-200LR, a massive high-tech aircraft that can deliver 400 passengers nonstop to any point on the planet.

"I'm awed," Garrett said before the dedication of the craft last week in front of several thousand Delta employees at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

The history of Delta, which now has 75,000 employees, 770 aircraft and major hubs in Atlanta, Detroit, Cincinnati, Minneapolis; Salt Lake City, Utah, and New York, as well as overseas hubs in Tokyo and Amsterdam, is in many ways intertwined with Garrett's 41-year run at the airline. He came to work for Delta as a $150-a-month reservations agent in 1946. He left as CEO in 1987.

"There was not a place in Delta I did not stick my nose in at some point," said Garrett, who now lives in Dawsonville.

Virginia-based airline analyst Darryl Jenkins characterized the Garrett era at Delta as the time the airline grew up and began to seek its own direction.

"He was over Delta during a period of extreme stability," Jenkins said. " When he was there, everybody wanted to work for Delta Air Lines."

Flying was 'special'

Delta, which began as a crop-dusting service battling the boll weevil in the Mississippi River delta (thus the name), boarded its first passenger on June 17, 1929. A single passenger, J.S. Fox, and pilot J.D. "Johnny" Howe climbed aboard a Travel Air S-6000-B for a five-hour flight from Dallas to Jackson, Miss., with stops in Shreveport, La., and Monroe, La.

Not long out of Furman University, and fresh out of World War II, Garrett came to Delta the year after the war ended. During the war he was a B-29 flight engineer based on Tinian, preparing for the invasion of mainland Japan that never came. His plane was parked beside the B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb.

"Those guys were bragging, 'We're here to win the war for you,' " he said. "But we didn't know what they were doing until they were gone and headed back for the States."

When Garrett arrived at the fledgling airline, Delta had been in Atlanta only five years after relocating from Monroe, La. It had 2,500 employees and a fleet of 25 aircraft. What would become the world's busiest airport had only three relatively short runways in those days, an X-shaped crosswind runway and one that ran east-west.

In the early years, the planes were propeller-powered. They were flown, mostly, by men who had been ferrying ammo, bombing cities or blasting enemy pilots from the air just a few years earlier. Flight attendants were called stewardesses. Passengers dressed up in their Sunday best.

The airline industry was run by men like Howard Hughes, former World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker and C.E. Woolman, the visionary who led the move to buy Huff Daland Dusters and later rename it Delta Air Service. They were cowboys, a breed long since replaced by coat-and-tie corporate types of modern aviation.

"Getting on an airplane was a special occasion back then," Garrett said.

Hughes and Elvis

A year after Garrett arrived, Delta scored a major coup. It added four cities — Montgomery, Ala., Columbus, Chattanooga, Tenn., and Macon — to its route map. Garrett moved to Chattanooga to open the "station" there, but a year later was back in Atlanta in the reservations control office.

He continued to move up the ranks as the airline grew, somehow managing to get a master's degree from Georgia Tech in 1955 at the same time. By 1957, he headed part of effort to the bring jet aircraft to Delta. The first was the sleek DC-8, which was put into service in September 1959.

"It was a fuel guzzler, no question about it," Garrett said. "And it had water-injection engines. At takeoff you'd dump 900 gallons of distilled water into the engine to increase thrust."

The 100-passenger DC-8 had a range of 2,740 miles and cruised at 590 mph. The Boeing 777 dedicated last week to Garrett is actually a bit slower — with a top speed of about 560 mph — but has four times the range, about 11,000 miles, and can carry nearly four times the number of passengers.

Rickenbacker, who ran Eastern Airlines at the time, decided he didn't want water-injection engines, Garrett remembered. So Rickenbacker delayed his company's move to jets by a year to get so-called "dry engines."

"We had taken the market to New York by the time he got his dry engines," Garrett laughed. "We at his lunch."

A year or so later, Delta decided it wanted to purchase 10 of the super-fast, four-engine Convair 880 jets, Garrett said. Trouble was, Hughes, who ran TWA, had locked up the first 40 of the jets for his company. No problem. Delta chief Woolman got on the phone and called the famously reclusive billionaire.

"Mr. Woolman was a real charmer, and Mr. Hughes agreed we could have 10," Garrett said. Not long after the deal, the telephone rang at Woolman's home, Garrett said. It was 3 a.m. Hughes was on the other end from Las Vegas.

"Mrs. Woolman answered and said, 'Mr. Woolman is asleep, and I don't intend to wake him.' Mr. Hughes apologized, and he never called him again at night. He was a weird guy."

Delta later sold one of those jets to a Memphis-based musician. He repainted it and named it after his daughter, Lisa Marie. It is now parked at Graceland.

A gripe with Carter

Garrett was involved with three mergers that continued to build Delta as a major carrier. Delta absorbed Chicago & Southern in 1953, Northeast in 1972 and Western in 1987. Since he left Delta, it grabbed Pan Am's trans-Atlantic assets in 1991, and merged with Northwest last year to become the world's largest carrier.

The 1970s saw the company add wide-bodied jets, 747s and L-1011s to its fleet and begin trans-Atlantic service. Garrett became CEO in 1978, the year President Jimmy Carter deregulated the airlines. It is a move that still causes Garrett to bristle.

"Jimmy Carter screwed it up, oh yeah," Garrett said bluntly. "Things went into utter chaos. For $100, you could start your own airline."

Garrett said deregulation destroyed the basic financial model for the airlines, leading to a lengthening list of discount carriers and airline failures. He believes the marketplace has slowly reversed Carter's move, thinning the ranks of the carriers in an aviation landscape increasingly dominated by big players like Delta.

"He [Carter] used to ask me, 'What do you think about my deregulation?'' Garrett said. "I never would talk to him about it."


Delta milestones

Delta Airlines flew its first passengers in 1929. David C. Garrett Jr. joined the company in 1946 and left in 1987. Here's a snapshot of Delta before, during and after Garrett's tenure:

1929: 50 employees, 3 passenger aircraft

1946: 2,500 employees, 25 passenger aircraft

1987: 51,000 employees, 370 passenger aircraft

2008: 75,000 employees, 770 passenger aircraft

Key Delta mergers

1953: C&S Air Lines

1972: Northeast Airlines

1987: Western Airlines

1991: Pan Am (Delta acquired trans-Atlantic assets)

2008: Northwest Airlines