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Delta Air Lines: A Machine Bureaucracy

The Delta Air Lines logo. Delta Air Lines has a very successful business model. Read on to learn how it works.

The Delta Air Lines logo. Delta Air Lines has a very successful business model. Read on to learn how it works.

Delta Air Lines

Delta is perhaps one of my favorite airlines. Part of what has attracted me to this carrier has been its history of success over the decades. Curious about how Delta has been able to survive where other carriers have failed, including TWA, Eastern, and Pan Am, I thought it might be interesting to look at Delta Airlines through the eyes of Henry Mintzberg, a business theorist who envisioned some companies as "machine bureaucracies."

What Is a Machine Bureaucracy?

For those who may not know, machine bureaucracy is a term coined by Mintzberg back in the 1980s to describe an organization involved in highly specialized work. Characteristically, machine bureaucracies also tend to have very routine tasks connected to what they produce, create, or "do."

These types of organizations usually have very formal operating rules with a centralized power structure—meaning power flows from the top. Machine-bureaucracy-type companies also have elaborate administrative structures that flow between management and front-line staff.

Given the size and reach of Delta Air Lines, I figured this would be a great company to use as an example of the ultimate machine bureaucracy.

I’ve also included some suggestions for the future that Delta might want to consider, contextualized using Mintzberg’s structural model.

Delta Air Lines: Background

Delta Air Lines Inc., operating as Delta Air Lines, is one of the largest passenger airlines in the United States, according to most of the current data.

Delta is a publicly traded company that is listed on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol DAL. The airline operates an extensive domestic and international network, serving nearly all continents, with the exception of Antarctica. In 2012, the company posted an annual profit of over one billion dollars.

Collett Everman Woolman

Collett Everman Woolman

Huff-Daland Duster used by Delta

Huff-Daland Duster used by Delta

Delta Early Beginnings

Starting off as an aerial crop dusting business that was jointly owned by B.R Coad and Collet Woolman, the company began operations on May 30, 1924, as Huff Deland Dusters in Macon, Georgia. In 1928, Woolman purchased all of the shares of the company and renamed the organization Delta Air Service.

The company renaming was in large part inspired by the geologic flood plain known as the Mississippi Delta, a distinctive northwest section of the state of Mississippi that lies between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers.

In 1929, Woolman bought three small aircraft and began scheduled passenger service from cities in Louisiana and Mississippi to Dallas, Texas.

During this short period of time, Delta technically could be classified as a simple structure using Mintzberg’s Organizational Structure Model. This was because Delta had only a handful of employees, which Woolman himself supervised while also operating the tiny company.

Here, we see Woolman acting as the strategic apex and the small group of employees as the organization’s operating core. This time period for Delta as a "simple structure" would be short-lived because, over the next several decades, Delta would grow to become one of the largest passenger airlines on the planet.

Delta Air Lines

Delta Air Lines

DC8 in Delta Livery

DC8 in Delta Livery

Delta Transforms From a Simple Structure to a Machine Bureaucracy

As a result of the Air Mail Act of 1934, Woolman secured government mail contracts for Delta, transforming the company from a tiny tri-state carrier to a larger, southern-based airline.

It was during this period that Delta began to characteristically transform from a simple structure to an expanding machine bureaucracy, using Mintzberg’s structural configuration model.

Essentially, Delta was forced to adopt a new model as the company was growing too big for one or two people to operate. This transformation was, in large part, fueled by lucrative government mail contracts.

Delta flight attendant circa 1940s

Delta flight attendant circa 1940s

Growth During the 1940s

During the 1940s, Delta was an early beneficiary of the Civil Aeronautics act of 1938, which in turn created the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), a governmental agency that granted approval to air carriers to fly to and from A given destination The CAB favored Delta due to its safety record, which was starkly different from other airlines of the era such as United Airlines and TWA.

The awarding of these lucrative mail contracts to Delta during these yearly years was an important growth factor for the company.

Due to rapid expansion and the need for centralized control over the company by management, Delta moved its corporate headquarters to Atlanta, Georgia, in 1941. During this decade, the company also began to upgrade its fleet to larger planes and added flight attendants.

Delta gates

Delta gates

Growth From the 1950s to the 2000s

During the next five decades, Delta Air Lines rapidly grew to become one of the largest airlines in the United States and one of the biggest passenger carriers in the world. Some highlights of the company’s growth include:

  • The purchase of Chicago and Southern Air in 1953
  • Adding jet airliners to its fleet during the 1960s
  • The introduction of European service in the 1970s
  • Launch of a frequent flyer program in the 1980s
  • Take-over of Pan American Airways European routes in the 1990s
  • A merger in 2008 with Northwest Airlines, making Delta the largest air carrier in the world.
Machine bureaucracy illustration

Machine bureaucracy illustration

Machine Bureaucracy Influencing Delta’s Business Operations Today

As stated, Delta’s current structure should be considered a machine bureaucracy using the criterion offered by Mintzberg. T

The company has nearly 80,000 employees worldwide, with its strategic apex (world headquarters) based in Atlanta, Georgia.

Delta’s Machine Bureaucracy Characteristics

This international airline fits the mold of a machine bureaucracy in that important decisions regarding operations, staffing and finances are made entirely at the strategic apex while day-to-day operations are controlled by managers.

Characteristic of a machine bureaucracy, there exist a number of standardized procedures for different employee groups, such as the pilots, the flight attendants, and ground support staff.

The management structure at Delta is vertical in nature, as is the case in most all machine bureaucracies. Communication channels are also vertical in nature, meaning information flows from the top of the strategic apex down to its operating core.

Delta Air Lines aircraft inflight

Delta Air Lines aircraft inflight

Delta Gates O'Hare

Delta Gates O'Hare

Benefits of a Machine Bureaucracy at Delta

In many ways, Delta benefits from having a very structured environment with strong strategic apex. Some of these benefits include:

  • Strong executive team comprised of professionals with years of experience in the airline industry
  • A size advantage, dominating the marketplace, particularly in the southern part of the United States, the Midwestern region, and along the entire East Coast corridor
  • Reduced labor costs, as Delta’s leadership has been mostly successful in keeping different workgroups from organizing
  • A modern, fuel-efficient fleet compared to other U.S.-based carriers
  • A strong customer base primarily linked to Delta through its frequent flyer program

There are other strengths connected to Delta’s machine bureaucracy, including its very strong domestic and international network, with major hubs in New York, Cincinnati, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, Detroit, and of course, Atlanta, its worldwide headquarters. International hubs include Amsterdam and Tokyo, giving the company a European and Asian base of operations.

Delta’s sheer size, with a fleet of nearly 700 aircraft flying to 318 destinations in 59 countries across six continents, certainly gives this organization advantages over its competitors, such as American Airlines, United Airlines, and to a lesser degree, Southwest Airlines.

Important decisions being made at its strategic apex and communicated downward can, in some ways, be an advantage, as Delta has a structured process for imparting information to employees vertically. The top-down structure at Delta also helps the company maintain clear lines of reporting, with information flowing vertically.

Negative Consequences of Machine Bureaucracy at Delta

The machine bureaucracy at Delta does not come without some negative consequences. Paradoxically, just as the structured environment at the company that has helped Delta also causes harm.

Some of the negatives connected to the machine bureaucracy at Delta include:

  • An inability to act quickly regarding changes in the marketplace impacting air travel
  • High staff turnover at the front-line worker level, causing the company to be in a near-constant hiring mode
  • Tension between station managers and headquarters
  • Cultural differences due to the company’s global presence
  • A perceived disconnect between executives and lower level workers
  • Ongoing problems with workgroups who have reported feeling financially exploited by management in pursuit of profit

Delta’s sheer size presents problems for the carrier as it is particularly difficult to manage such a large organization with such a large employee base scattered across six continents.

Suggestions for Delta’s Future

The airline industry is highly competitive and highly volatile. Attempting to work towards a long-term growth model for the future, Delta merged with Northwest Airlines in 2008. While the end result was one less airline to contend with [Northwest folded into Delta], it also created a much larger "mega-carrier," which hardens the bureaucratic model. It is important to note that Delta is a profitable company in its current form, posting a quarterly profit of eighty-million dollars for the first quarter of 2013.

At this moment, things appear to be "working" at Delta. However, because of the volatility of the airline industry, primarily due to fluctuating fuel prices, coupled with recent mergers of carriers such as American Airlines and U.S. Air, the current operating model and structure is not a guarantee of future success. What follows are two practical suggestions for Delta in order for the airline to stay on a glide scope of profitability, stability, and growth.

Delta's Future

Delta's Future

Suggestions for Delta

Grow the Future

Delta should continue to look for opportunities to grow, primarily through acquisitions and mergers. The number of available airlines to acquire, however, is relatively small as there are only a handful of carriers left in the United States. One company to consider is Alaska Airlines, a regional airline that operates primarily along the western coast of the United States and Alaska. Delta has a relatively small presence on the west coast when compared to United Airlines and American Airlines.

Re-think Communications

Delta has serious problems with its employee groups, particularly the flight attendants and ground support workers who may want to unionize. Many of the Delta employees in cities such as Minneapolis and Detroit are former Northwest Airlines employees who were represented by collective bargaining units pre-merger. One of the main complaints against Delta by workers, which also happens to be fueling unionization efforts, is the top-down communication style employed by the company. One option for Delta to consider is a more open communication style, allowing the free flow of information up and down the company’s current vertical structure.

There is some evidence this approach is effective, as witnessed by the turnaround at Continental Airlines [now merged with United Airlines]. At Continental, the company’s chief executive at the time, Gordon Bethune, made drastic changes to how employees communicated with one another and helped to take an airline that was failing to succeed.

Delta 757 Cabin

Delta 757 Cabin

Seeking More Growth

Delta Air Lines has grown from a tiny crop dusting carrier in the southern United States to a globally competitive, profitable airline. Starting off as a simple structure, the company quickly transformed into a machine bureaucracy. The company has much strength, fueled by its competitive route structure, both domestically and internationally. Delta’s sheer size and dominance in the southern and eastern regions of the United States alone makes it difficult for smaller carriers and start-ups to gain entry.

Delta’s positives can also act as negatives. The company’s largeness makes communications with employee groups challenging. Additionally, front-line employees have reported a “disconnect” between how workers are understood and treated by the management team.

Delta’s machine bureaucracy appears to have served it well since the 1940s. The company, however, needs to remain vigilant against problems with labor while also assessing its response to ongoing consolidation in the airline industry. Delta must continue to find ways to grow.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2014 John Lannoye


Doug Brewster on July 05, 2019:

John your article I can tell is written by an outsider to the airlines, and I'm sure you found half the info on Wikipedia. Have you looked in depth at all into their financial statements, maybe between sets that the gym you could do some actual research, have a more cohesive thoughts next time.

John Lannoye (author) from Chicago on September 18, 2014:

Hi, MsDora,

Delta is one of my favorites too. They have managed to survive after everyone else went bellyup! Thanks for the share by the way.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on September 18, 2014:

Delta is also among my favorites in airlines. My first flight out of the Caribbean region 40 years ago was on Delta. Thanks for the information on its history and growth. You have give sensible guidelines to help them avoid serious labor problems. A great article!