NEW YORK — In a deal valued at about $860 million, Delta Air Lines will buy Los Angeles-based Western Airlines, the nation's oldest scheduled air carrier, the two companies announced Tuesday.
Western, which celebrated its 60th birthday in April, used open-cockpit, single-engine planes on its first route--from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City via Las Vegas. It gave Los Angeles its first transcontinental air service and put Southern California on the air mail map. Its name will presumably disappear in about a year when the merger is completed.
Delta, founded in 1929, is the nation's sixth-largest airline in terms of revenue passenger miles, while Western ranks ninth. When they combine, the new entity will fly more than 40 billion revenue passenger miles a year, putting it in fourth place behind a merged Texas Air Corp.-Eastern Airlines, United Airlines and American Airlines.
The proposed merger, announced here after a meeting of Western's board, comes during a period of intense consolidation in the airline industry. In the last 12 months, Northwest Orient Airlines and Republic Airlines have merged; Pan American World Airlines sold its Pacific routes to United Airlines, and Trans World Airlines and Ozark Airlines began the process of merging.
The merger of Texas Air and Eastern, which has been temporarily held up by the Department of Transportation, is expected to be approved ultimately, creating the nation's largest carrier. In another major deal, People Express Airlines bought Frontier Airlines and then recently put it into bankruptcy.
According to Airline Economics Inc., a Washington, D.C., consulting firm, once all of the proposed mergers have been completed, the nation's major airlines combined will share 71% of the airline market compared to the 59% they had as individual airlines.
Delta is a strong airline with the best balance sheet in the industry and a modern fleet of cost-efficient jets.
Return to Profits
Western had a dramatic turnaround last year after a five-year period--from 1980 through 1984--of losses. Although Western will initially be operated as a wholly owned subsidiary of Delta, the operations of the two carriers will be combined within a year of the completion of the transaction, the carriers said in a joint statement.
The only possible stumbling block to the merger might come from labor. While Delta has only one union, the pilots, Western is fully unionized.
Marv Griswold, principal officer of Teamsters Local 2707, which represents 1,600 Western mechanics, stock clerks, fuelers and flight instructors in Los Angeles, said those employees are "fully protected" by their labor contracts against such things as layoffs and unfair loss of seniority because of a merger.
Representatives of the other unions involved were not available for comment.
Called a Good Fit
Airline observers generally applauded the proposed Delta-Western merger. "It is a very positive fit," said Scott Drysdale, airline analyst with the Seattle office of Birr, Wilson & Co., a San Francisco brokerage firm. "The operating synergies will be excellent."
David Sylvester, airline analyst with the San Francisco brokerage of Montgomery Securities, said Delta is making an excellent buy.
"Western is a financially clean company," he said. "It has $200 million in cash in the till and only $150 million in long-term debts." He added that Western is second only to United in the number of airport gates on the West Coast and in the Rocky Mountain states--78 next to United's 127.
Delta, headquartered in Atlanta, has most of its routes in the South but also flies to several West Coast airports, including Los Angeles International. It operates international flights to Britain, Canada, Bermuda, the Bahamas, West Germany, Ireland and France.
Focus in the West
Western, which concentrates on the Western United States, has its major hub in Salt Lake City. Its main international routes are to various points in Mexico.
The proposed merger is expected to face no opposition on antitrust grounds by the Justice Department or by the Department of Transportation, which must give final approval. The airlines overlap on only two routes--between Salt Lake City and Dallas-Forth Worth and between Portland, Ore., and Salt Lake City.
It has been rumored several times in the last six months that Delta would become a suitor for Western. Earlier this year, the Western stock was hotly traded on merger rumors. But Western Chairman Gerald Grinstein indicated in an April interview that his airline wanted to go it alone.
Nevertheless, analysts had been saying for months that both Western and Delta would have to become part of the consolidation pattern. They said that Delta might get "left behind" as other major carriers grew through mergers.
A combination with Western, these observers said, would give Delta a presence in the West and allow it to become national in character. Western, they insisted, would not be able to fight off some kind of an acquisition much longer.