Ed Bastian: Polrit, you’ve logged millions of miles in the skies serving Delta’s customers. You were with us in the weeks and months after 9-11 and the global downturn in 2008. Have you ever experienced anything quite like this?
Polrit Disatapundhu: I’ve seen a lot in my 20-plus years flying for Delta – I thought I’d seen it all. But nothing has come close to what we’ve all experienced over the last few months.
Ed: Like you, I’ve been flying throughout the pandemic – I’m on a flight pretty much every week, and I’ve spent a lot of time talking with our customers and doing my best to reassure them that air travel is safe, thanks to all of the layers of protection we’ve added. Are there any experiences you’ve had with nervous or stressed travelers that stand out?
Polrit: It’s still those little human touches that make the difference for me. I got into this business because of a Delta ad I saw in 1987, with a little girl who was traveling alone. When she landed, she ran to her grandparents and pointed to the flight attendant who had been taking care of her, exclaiming, “That’s my new friend!”
I worked a recent flight to Washington, D.C., that reminded me a bit of that ad. I met a grandmother and her 3-year-old granddaughter, and they were exhausted, having traveled from Cameroon. The grandmother was becoming anxious, as the young girl refused to stay in her seat. I knelt down beside her and asked if I could make her doll more comfortable. I sterilized a set of plastic wings and pinned them on the doll. The young girls’ eyes lit up behind her mask. Her grandmother whispered to me, “Thank you. Thank you for being here.” I felt like that 1987 ad had come full circle.
Ed: That kind of human connection is more important than ever. When I fly people always recognize me because I’m in Delta’s safety video. So I’ve had lots of opportunities to talk directly to our customers about the steps we’re taking to protect them and the incredible partnerships we’ve forged with health providers like Mayo Clinic, Emory Healthcare and Lysol. In particular, people appreciate the fact that we’re still blocking middle seats and capping our capacity. The experts tell us that the extra space, along with our mandatory mask requirement, electrostatic disinfection and hospital-grade air filters, makes a big difference.
Polrit, you’re on the front lines of enforcing our mandatory mask policy – has it been a challenge for you and your colleagues?
Polrit: People ask me that a lot. The reality is that the vast majority of our customers appreciate our mask requirement and understand that it is helping to keep them safe and healthy. I’ve had many conversations where travelers thank us for our approach. As someone who spends a huge amount of time on our planes, I appreciate that we take it so seriously.
Ed: It’s incredibly important. As of today, we’ve added more than 130 people to our ‘no-fly’ list for refusing to wear masks. Fortunately, that’s a tiny percentage of our travelers, but we do take it seriously. I’m sure that customers ask you regularly whether you think it’s safe to fly. How do you respond?
Polrit: My response is honest: I’m a traveler just like you. My mother lives with us and was just diagnosed with cancer for a second time. I certainly don’t want to bring back the virus to my family. I have to be responsible, and I have to feel safe coming to work each day.
Before COVID, passengers often asked me about restaurants and sites to see. Today, the questions have changed. “What are your cleaning processes?” “Have you checked every seat?” “Has this aircraft been defogged?” “Do you personally feel safe?”
When you’re on my flight, my job is to welcome you into my “home.” I take seriously your trust in me as your host, and you need to know my commitment is to make this as safe as my own house. In fact, I sign my name to it every flight.
Ed: That trust that you and so many of our Delta colleagues are building every day with travelers is going to make a big difference when we begin to emerge from the pandemic. It’s one of the reasons I’m confident and excited about our future, despite the challenges we’re facing today.
Polrit: So many people are looking forward traveling again! There’s a joy and excitement in connecting with people, seeing new places, getting together with friends and family that can’t be replaced.
Ed: In my own travels I’m struck by the number of people who are thankful that we’re even operating at all. Many are on planes for vital reasons – they’re essential health or medical workers, or they’re traveling to family events that just can’t be missed. They know that our people like you are working hard to enable them to travel.
I want to thank you for the amazing work you and all of our colleagues are doing every day to keep travelers safe and healthy when they need to fly.
Polrit: Thank you, Ed! And I want to thank you for the leadership you’re showing us in steering Delta through the pandemic.
Ed: We’re all in this together – you, me, our customers, our entire world. I’m looking forward to seeing you on one of my flights soon.
Ed Bastian is Delta Air Lines’ chief executive officer. Polrit Disatapundhu is a Los Angeles-based Delta flight attendant.