Before we talk about the special relationship, Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines had with the Boeing 727, let’s first take a closer look at the plane and see how it came to be. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, America’s three biggest airlines, United Airlines, Eastern Airlines, and American Airlines, were looking for a jet to operate out of airports with short runways.
United Airlines asked Boeing to build a four-engine plane suitable for operations out of its high-altitude hub at Denver Stapleton International Airport (DEN). Meanwhile, American Airlines was already flying Boeing 707s and wanted a twin-engine jet to service smaller cities.
Eastern Airlines, which operated many flights to islands in the Caribbean, wanted a three-engine plane to comply with ETOPS requirements. At the time, twin-engine jets were limited to flying no more than 60 miles from a suitable airport for landing in an emergency. Eventually, all three agreed on the three-engine Boeing 727.
The Boeing 727 had some unique features
Knowing that the plane would operate from smaller airports with fewer facilities, Boeing came up with some unique features. The Boeing 727 had its own auxiliary power unit (APU). This meant the plane could run the air-conditioning and start its engines without needing an external power supply.
To make passenger loading and unloading easier, the 727 had an airstair that opened from the rear underbelly of the fuselage. For this reason, the hijacker D. B. Cooper selected the 727 for his getaway plane, knowing he could open the rear stairs mid-flight and parachute from the aircraft. Another unique feature of the Boeing 727 was optional brakes on the nose landing gear to help the plane stop quicker on small runways.
Eastern Airways was the launch customer
The first Boeing 727 entered service with Eastern Airlines on February 1, 1964, and was immediately deployed on the Miami, Washington DC, Philadelphia route. As for Delta Air Lines, it did not get its first Boeing 727 until the carrier merged with Northeast Airlines on August 1, 1972. When speaking at the time about the Boeing 727 joining Delta’s fleet, the Delta Air Lines flight museum quotes Delta Vice President for Engineering Julian May as saying the following:
“The 727 has a place in the Delta fleet for many years. It is popular with our passengers, and its modern, low-noise, and fuel-efficient engines help us keep ticket prices down while being a good neighbor at the airports we serve.”
By 198, Delta Air Lines had 129 Boeing 727-200s in its fleet, making it the world’s largest operator of the hugely popular mid-size aircraft. Delta’s 727s carried 65,000 passengers and 600 tons of cargo while flying 426,000 miles daily. In a typical year, Delta Boeing 727s were flying 1,420,000 miles.
With the plane’s original 131-seat configuration Delta was able to increase its capacity to New York’s LaGuardia Airport (LGA) and what at the time was called Washington National Airport (DCA). Both airports were closed to four-engined planes like the 707 making the 727 trijet the perfect option.
Delta was the last big US airline still flying the Boeing 727
Eventually, other airlines started opting for the Boeing 737 and larger Boeing 757, leaving Delta as the last operator of the Boeing 727. The aircraft’s last commercial flight by a US carrier took place on Sunday, April 6, 2003, when a Delta 727 flew from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) to Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro, North Carolina.