Just days before formally assuming the reins as chief executive, Ed Bastian spoke to Delta News Hub about his transition, the state of the airline and his vision for the future.
What has it been like since the Feb. 3 announcement that you would become Delta’s next CEO?
It’s been very encouraging. I have focused the last couple of months on our employees. And one of main reasons for that is that people at Delta know me, but they don’t know me in this chair, so it’s been a chance for them to reacquaint themselves with me from a different vantage point, in the leadership role.
So I’ve tried to make myself available and accessible, whether it’s walk arounds at TechOps, or breakfast with employees at the G.O., or the airport hub visits that I’m going to be doing over the next few weeks.
You’ve gotten a lot of questions and feedback from Delta people. Has anything been surprising?
I wouldn’t say anything has surprised me, but the momentum and the spirit of the team is extraordinarily high. We’ve never performed better as a company. We’ve got a lot of challenges, especially the security environment, what we faced in Brussels last month was a tough situation for us to encounter. But there’s an enormous amount of optimism about the future, which is infectious and it’s created a lot of additional momentum as we look to the summer.
A lot of younger employees have attended events with you recently. What are you hearing from them and has it impacted your thoughts on how to lead the company?
There’s no question that the face of the Delta employees is changing, it’s becoming younger just as our customer base is becoming younger. The millennials are becoming a much more important part of our demographic, whether it’s our internal customers or our external customers. We have got to stay ahead of that change and make certain our product and our service offerings are fresh. There’s a vitality that comes with that, a new vitality that can breathe life into the brand.
I think one of the things to me that’s really cool is this is an 85-year-old brand that we get to continue to evolve. And getting feedback from our internal millennials has given me a lot of interesting ideas about what we need to do to better serve our external millennials.
You often mention the Delta Care Fund and Scholarship Fund, and our commitment to give 1 percent of Delta’s profits back to the community. Why are these initiatives such an important priority for you as a leader?
We’ve done a great job of bringing our employees along, and investing in them over the last 10 years, getting pay raises and profit sharing and benefits improved. We’ve done a lot for our customers, investing billions in the customer experience, and the results there show in the revenues we’re producing and the growth we’re creating. We invest a lot in our owners, both in paying down debt and investing in our own stock and paying dividends. And I thought it was time to complete the circle by investing in our communities. We’ve always done great work in our communities, giving time and money, but we’ve never made a formal commitment that Delta will be there. And just how we were pulling together for our historic profit sharing day this Valentine’s Day, a number of us thought it would be great to have a profit sharing day for our communities as well. So it was very important to do.
Related: Read a profile of Ed Bastian, who once left Delta in what he called the toughest decision he ever made.
And I always make a point of talking about the history of the Delta Care Fund (an employee-funded relief fund) and the Scholarship Fund (also employee funded), about Delta people giving back and taking care of our own. A lot of people don’t know how it started, and it started with (then-CEO) Jerry Grinstein, who refused to take any compensation when he was leading the company through the bankruptcy. We used the stock that he wouldn’t take and used it to start the funds to give back to the Delta people. It has funded a lot of scholarships for Delta employees, and helped a lot of Delta people during a hard time personally, or who are going through tragic situations like the tsunami in Japan a few years ago. People don’t always realize that this is not corporate Delta, it’s the people of Delta who provide the funding to take care of each other when it’s most needed. I don’t think there’s a more important investment that we can all make, to take care of our own.
How has it been working with (new President) Glen Hauenstein and (Chief Operating Officer) Gil West?
The team has gelled well. We’ve had a lot of time together, we’ve brought a lot of ideas together. Any time you form a new team you have new dynamics, new thoughts. I can tell you there’s a lot of excitement about the future, and we’re really happy with the new Delta Leadership Committee, as we call ourselves, the senior leadership team that we’ve created. There have been other changes in the organization, and there has been a chance for people to have new opportunities and a new structure for how we’re managed in some areas. It’s brought a lot of vitality and momentum to our leadership across the organization.
You have been all over Delta since February, doing a lot of visits and spending time with employees. You’re also very busy with the usual responsibilities of running the company. How have you managed your work-life balance at a time like this?
I haven’t had a lot of work-life balance in the last couple of months. I knew taking on the job it would be a consuming process. But it’s been great, I’m excited about it. Candidly, I get a lot of energy from speaking to our employees, whether it’s at a Town Hall, or a breakfast, or just walking around talking to people at TechOps (aviation maintenance). I get a lot of new ideas, I see the optimism in people’s faces about the future, and that gives me a lot of internal energy and drive for the future. So I’m doing well and enjoying the experience. The digital team has made me as virtual as possible through "Ed’s NewsFeed" on the new Deltanet (internal website), and the "Ask Ed Anything" employee videos I’ve been doing. So I’m going to stay virtual and also continue to see as many people in person as best I can.
After the announcement you mentioned that you wanted to have fun doing this job. Do you still feel that way as you officially take over?
I’ve enjoyed the new opportunity. It’s an amazing honor to lead such an incredible company and such an amazing group of people. I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of customers, and gotten a chance to meet a lot of the new employees. I’ve gone to the Velvets (employee meetings) over the past couple of months, and I enjoy going to the party the night before and seeing the enthusiasm everyone has, it’s infectious. So I’m enjoying the experience and I want to be very intentional about it. I realize I’m blessed to have this opportunity.
Related: Read a previous Q&A with Bastian published just after he was announced as the next CEO.