Veterans on Charter Flight from US to Normandy for D-Day Anniversary

June 5, 2024
Delta since 2022 committed to operating a charter flight to carry veterans for each D-Day observance through the 80th anniversary — which is this year.

ATLANTA — For Delta Air Lines employee Virginie Durr, D-Day is particularly poignant: As a native of Normandy, her family was liberated by the campaign launched on D-Day during World War II.

Her family has an understanding of “that sense of occupation, and the liberation of freedom,” Durr said. “That’s part of my DNA.”

So while working for Delta in Atlanta as a sales manager, she started talking to colleagues about how to get a direct flight into Normandy’s small airport for World War II veterans to more easily return for D-Day anniversaries — instead of flying into Paris and then taking a long bus ride to Normandy.

“It’s a long, long trip,” she said — especially for the surviving veterans who are now more than 100 years old. Veterans travel to Normandy every year for the commemoration of the day when troops from the United States, Britain, Canada and other Allied nations landed on the beaches of Normandy at the start of the campaign to liberate Nazi-occupied Europe.

Durr took her idea for a direct travel to Normandy to Delta executive Bob Somers, who helped find a way for the airline to gain access for the first flight by a U.S. passenger airline into Normandy’s Deauville airport in 2022.

“Frankly, I didn’t think we’d be able to pull it off,” Somers said Sunday, before boarding this year’s flight. “And here we are … the third year of doing this.”

Delta since 2022 committed to operating a charter flight to carry veterans for each D-Day observance through the 80th anniversary — which will be commemorated this week.

“They’re waiting for us to come back,” said Andy Negra, who served during World War II with an Army unit, participated in the Allied occupation of Berlin at the end of the war and now lives in Sautee Nacoochee near Helen, Georgia. For the people in Normandy, D-Day has huge significance, Negra notes.

“They were invaded. We were not. So they have a bigger reason for celebrating,” said Negra, who turned 100 on May 28. “For them to invite us back to enjoy and celebrate with them is an honor for all of us World War II veterans.”

On Sunday evening at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Negra and 47 other veterans boarded Delta flight 9994 to Normandy on a Boeing 767-300 for the 80th anniversary. Two of the veterans were flown from the West Coast to Atlanta on private jets operated by Delta partner Wheels Up.

“We’re all about making the travel as seamless as possible,” Durr said. While Delta is operating the charter flight into Normandy, other veterans from around the country are flying into Paris on other airlines before making their way to Normandy.

On the Delta charter flight, the veterans were served business-class meals and given Hershey bars, in honor of the Hershey bars giving to them as sustenance during World War II.

“It’s going to be a memorable trip. It already is,” said Hilbert Margol, a 100-year-old World War II veteran who lives in Dunwoody.

At the international terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the veterans were greeted with cheers and a marching band in the atrium, signed autographs on specially-designed custom postcards and joined in a parade around the terminal before the departure.

Margol boarded the charter flight Sunday to visit Normandy for the first time, after serving as an artillery gunner during World War II with his twin brother and encountering the Dachau concentration camp in 1945.

The trip this year will includes parades, school visits, ceremonies and the official D-Day commemoration. Delta CEO Ed Bastian is also traveling to France for the anniversary.

Nearly half of the veterans on the flight have not been to Normandy over the last 80 years, Somers said.

The milestone anniversaries are celebrated every five years, and “the sad truth, to be honest with you, is many of these veterans will not see another milestone. … We lose some every year,” Somers said. “Once you realize that, you realize how important it is to make sure that this trip for them is life-changing and meaningful.”

The planned ceremonies for the June 6 commemoration are drawing heads of state from around the world, including President Joe Biden.

Delta’s veterans employee group oversees the Normandy flight plans, in partnership with the nonprofit Best Defense Foundation, Michelin and Boeing. Employees at Delta and its partners applied for the chance to be an escort and caregiver for veterans taking the trip. Medical staff are also on the trip to Normandy to be on hand for veterans’ medical needs.

Delta also this year started a program for volunteers from the company to develop relationships with World War II veterans to support them throughout the year, beyond the big D-Day celebration.

Keyra Lynn Johnson, Delta’s chief diversity, equity, inclusion and social impact officer, said hiring veterans is an important part of Delta’s DEI strategy. Of the company’s roughly 100,000 employees, about 11% are former or active members of the military, and the airline partners with veterans organizations to find potential hires.

“I think it’s easy for people to think about diversity, equity and inclusion in a very narrow scope,” Johnson said. “For years, we’ve focused on veterans as part of our diversity.”

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