In its heyday, the invitation-only Flying Colonel was one of air transportation’s coveted citations.
The first ”Flying Colonels of the Delta Fleet” were frequent flyers, supporters of Delta and the air transport industry in 1953, but the program has an earlier history. Delta inherited the Flying Colonels in our merger with Chicago and Southern (C&S) Air Lines in 1953. The program was the brain child of George E. Bounds in 1940, then C&S Director-Public Relations and Advertising, who wanted a way to recognize those contributing to the airlines’ success and to build good public relations.
The first woman named a Flying Colonel (a rarity until 1984) was Betty Jeanne Claffey, aviation editor of the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper in 1944.
The youngest Flying Colonel is believed to be six-year-old Tommy Alexander in 1946. Tommy rode C&S home after an operation for a life-threatening ruptured appendix.
At one time, Flying Colonels had lifetime membership to Delta’s Crown Room Clubs (airport lounges opened in the late 1950s).
A McCall’s magazine columnist visting the French country home of the Duke of Windsor in 1973, noted: “The walls are lined with mementos from the past—everything from a gigantic map documenting his travels as the Prince of Wales to a certificate making the Duke a ‘Flying Colonel’ for Delta Air Lines . . .”
We awarded Flying Colonel memberships until January 1, 1998.
Flying Orchid Program
In the tradition of the Flying Colonels, we also designed a separate program to recognize women for their support of the Delta and air transportation industry in 1960. The orchid had been an important internal symbol at both C&S and Delta, so “Flying Orchid” seemed a natural choice for the program’s name. C.E. Woolman, Delta’s principal founder and first CEO, grew orchids as a hobby, and often presented them to Delta employees to mark significant accomplishments, such as flight attendant graduations. C&S also recognized employees’ extra efforts on behalf of the customer or the company in “An Orchid for You” articles in the company magazine.
In 1984, we modified our recognition programs so that women were now designated as “Flying Colonels,” just as men were. The Orchid program was then used to recognize administrative assistants and planners who made travel arrangments.
For details on the start-up of our first Frequent Flyer program in 1981, check out my earlier post.