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VIDEO: Delta’s first black flight dispatcher, duty director retires after 50 years of service

When Joseph "Joe" Jackson started his career at Delta Air Lines in 1968, he didn't realize he was history in the making. Throughout his 50-year career with the airline, Jackson broke barriers as the first African-American flight dispatcher, sector manager and duty director.

"At first I didn't feel like I was being a trailblazer," said Jackson. "I just wanted to fit in and make sure that I did a good job. I knew that if I did, then it would open up an opportunity for other minority dispatchers. Every time I would see another black dispatcher get hired, it made me smile because I knew it meant we were doing a good job."

Jackson began his career with Delta as a ramp agent in Miami after his brother-in-law, who worked part-time at the airport, told him about the job opening and suggested he give it a try. He went in for his first interview and then was offered a second interview in Atlanta. Jackson had never flown before, but said he was excited to board a plane for the first time. He was hired at Delta on October 21, 1968.

A few years later he transferred to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. where he was promoted to a customer service agent. Jackson excelled working in Airport Customer Service and earned a series of promotions — from senior customer service agent to lead agent to eventually becoming a supervisor.

In 1980, Jackson's station manager at Ft. Lauderdale told him about an opportunity to work in Flight Control as an assistant flight superintendent.  

"At the time, I really didn't know much about Flight Control, but I decided to go ahead and accept the job," said Jackson. "I was very nervous about it because I didn't know what to expect, but I convinced myself that I would be able to do this job because I had been able to do well at every other job I had before."

And he did just that. After obtaining his dispatcher's license in 1982, he was promoted to flight superintendent. He continued to work hard and became the airline's first African-American sector manager, now known as systems operations manager, in 1991. From there he received another promotion to become a duty director. Jackson served as a duty director for eight years and has since been Delta's first and only African-American in that role. He eventually returned to what he enjoyed best, systems operation management, and has been in this role ever since.

With breaking barriers come challenges and Jackson recalled some of his experiences as the first African-American in Flight Control.

"When I first started, I was told that a former operations executive said there would never be any black men working under his leadership," said Jackson. "The majority of the gentleman working in Flight Control were several years older than me. They would often stare and ask me odd questions about my life. I guess they were just curious, but none of them went out of their way to make me uncomfortable and they typically helped me when needed." 

Over the last five decades, Jackson has witnessed Delta's evolution — from mergers, bankruptcy, global expansion and technological advancements — but he says one thing has remained the same: the airline's culture.

Throughout the years, it's clear "Delta people are still very caring for our customers and each other," said Jackson. "You can see that in our operations — we will do any and everything we can to avoid canceling flights and put our customers first. When I walk past the gates, I see employees treating customers with the same hospitality that I treated customers with when I was a customer service agent. These values have always remained the same."

When asked what advice he would give to minorities aspiring to work in Flight Control, Jackson said, "I would explain to them what a flight dispatcher is and the level of responsibility that comes with this career. I would also tell them they can do anything they want to do as long as they set their goals and work towards accomplishing them."

Jackson has dedicated more than half of his life to Delta and said that he's been able to stay with the airline for so long because he truly loves what he does.

He recounted a recent opportunity to read his employee file, saying, "One of the comments that I wrote on my evaluation was, 'Delta is the best thing that ever happened to me in my life. I love this company and I hope to retire from it,' — that was over 40 years ago and I feel the exact same way today."

Jackson's dreams of retiring from Delta have become a reality. He said retirement is bittersweet because he'll be leaving his Delta family, though he looks forward to spending time and traveling with his wife of 31 years, Deborah, their children and grandchildren.

"Joe and I both served as duty directors around the same time and it has been an honor to work alongside him for many years," said Dave Holtz, S.V.P. — Operations and Customer Center. "Though he will be greatly missed in the OCC, I want to commend him for his 50 years of service to Delta and for being a pioneer in Flight Control and in our industry.

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