On 9 September 2015, the very first Boeing 747-400 built, N661US, touched down at Atlanta from Honolulu as Delta Flight 836 for the last time in revenue passenger service. Ship 6301 was the Boeing 747-400 prototype, which was delivered to launch customer Northwest Airlines on 8 December 1989 and came over to Delta with the 2008 merger. There are twelve remaining 747-400s flying with Delta, all of which came over from Northwest. Current fleet planning will have these 747s retired in 2017.
Delta did however, for a brief time, operate the first variant of the 747 family, the 747-100, from September 1970 to April 1977. Only five aircraft were taken on strength with Delta and while the 747-100 was but a short historical footnote in Delta’s history, its legacy looms large to this day with the airline.
In order to understand what the 747 was for Delta at the time, one has to consider that as the 1960s were drawing to a close, Delta was in the midst of transition on several fronts. The first change came with the Southern Transcontinental Route Case of 1961. Prior to deregulation, airlines usually had to make a case for the opening of new services and routes to the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB). Often these cases consisted of years of deliberation, and politics played a central role in airlines winning favorable rulings from the CAB. In the 1950s, the CAB favored interchange services as a means for airlines to open up new markets without saturating a given route with an excess of seats, harming profitability.
Having a predominantly southeastern U.S.-anchored network, Delta linked up with several other airlines to offer interchange services which allowed it to fly as far west as California. As traffic grew on the interchange services to the west coast, Delta petitioned the CAB to operate the west coast services on its own, and in one of the more historic decisions made by the CAB, both Delta and National Airlines were given route authorities to California from the southeast in what was called the Southern Transcontinental Route Case.