"We are setting a new standard at Delta, building a company that is producing strong improvements to earnings and cash flow, while also investing billions of dollars in our people, fleet and products and strengthening our balance sheet," said CEO Richard Anderson in a prepared statement.
The goal, he said, is "becoming a consistently high-performing S&P 500 company."
In premarket trading shortly before the opening bell, Delta shares were up 70 cent to $38.25.
Delta's board approved increasing the quarterly dividend to 9 cents a share from 6 cents a share and also repurchasing $2 billion worth of stock by Dec. 31, 2016, the carrier announced during an investor presentation Tuesday morning.
Combined, the two programs are expected to return $2.75 billion to shareholders through 2016.
Delta said it has exceeded financial targets it announced in May 2013.
The carrier ended the first quarter with $9.1 billion of adjusted net debt, down $2.6 billion since the end of 2012 and down nearly $8 billion since 2009. Adjusted net debt is expected to fall to $7 billion in 2015, two years ahead of the target date. Further reduction to $5 billion is expected by the end of 2016.
Delta is on track to return $700 million to shareholders by early June, through $200 million of dividends and completion of its original $500 million share repurchase authorization more than two years ahead of its June 30, 2016, expiration date.
Additionally, Delta contributed nearly $1 billion to its defined benefit pension plan for 2013 and 2014. This pension funding, combined with higher interest rates and returns on pension assets, helped lower the company's unfunded pension liability by 25% to just over $10 billion. The company plans to maintain its current $1 billion annual funding level through 2020, with a goal of achieving 80% funded status by that date.
Delta had approximately 853 million shares of common stock outstanding as of March 31, 2014.
Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.
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