Delta Dividend Signals New Course for Industry: CEO

In a rare move for airlines, Delta initiated a quarterly dividend and announced that it would return $1 billion to shareholders over the next three years, a move that the company's CEO, Richard Anderson, called a signpost for change in the industry.

"It's an important day for Delta," Anderson said Wednesday. "What we've really done in the company is that we have come to a sustainable business model that throws off significant free cash flows for our shareholders."

"Our decision today to begin a dividend and a buyback program is real evidence of change in the industry," he added.

Along with returning cash to shareholders, Anderson pointed out that the company is changing its capital structure, aiming to reduce the company's net debt position and "de-risk" the balance sheet. Doing this, he said, will make the beta on the stock much more attractive to long-term shareholders.

While Delta is on track to have its most profitable year in history, Anderson said an "interesting phenomenon" is helping them get there. He said that the full airline industry is experiencing an overall reduction in fuel costs that "more than offset" the hit to profits from broad economic conditions.

Earlier on "Squawk on the Street", CNBC's Jim Cramer encouraged investors to be bullish on airline companies in general.

"Airlines—three things they have going for them," Cramer said. "One, it's almost impossible to get a new plane if you want to start a startup against them. Two, these companies now have much more fuel efficient planes. Three, the mergers. We have a Justice Department that's a shareholder's dream."

"I always love it when the Justice Department blesses anti-competitive situations, because we all make so much money. The airlines are fabulous to invest in," Cramer said.

— Reuters contributed to this report.

— By CNBC's Paul Toscano. Follow him on Twitter and get the latest stories from "Squawk on the Street" @ToscanoPaul