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The Grinstein Legacy: How a former CEO paved the way for Delta’s people-first culture

As Delta approaches its 100th anniversary, we look back on former CEO Jerry Grinstein’s transformational impact on the airline’s core values.

Delta’s people-first culture and commitment to servant leadership are recognized with accolades from the likes of Fortune, TIME and countless others year after year. They’re defining characteristics that bring everything full circle: Delta takes care of and invests in our people so our people can take care of our customers.  

What some people may not know is how former Delta CEO Jerry Grinstein paved the way in cementing these core values. 

As Delta approaches its 100th anniversary, the Executive Building on Delta’s main campus was renamed in Grinstein's honor as a tribute to his transformational impact on the company, offering an inspiration for the values that will carry the airline forward into its next century.    

"This building really belongs to the people of Delta - the genius of the people and their will to continue through difficult times," Grinstein said during the event. "You can't help but have a passion for this company. It's the top of the industry, and there's no one quite like it." 

Watch the full unveiling on News Hub.

Delta CEO Ed Bastian and former Delta CEO Jerry Grinstein look up at a building.

Grinstein made his first impression on Delta when, as the CEO of Western Airlines, he led the merger of the two airlines in 1987 and was immediately appointed to Delta’s Board of Directors. With 44 cities added to the system, the merger made Delta the fourth-largest airline in the United States and the fifth-largest in the world at the time. 

Former Delta CEO Jerry Grinstein stands before a crowd at the merger of Delta and Western Airlines in 1987.

However, it was when Grinstein became the CEO of Delta in 2004 that he truly made his mark, leading the airline through bankruptcy and re-establishing the company’s people-first culture and commitment to servant leadership.  

During this time with the company, Grinstein became known for building strong relationships with Delta people across the operational and commercial teams, constantly working in service of employees and showing through his leadership that he truly cared. 

Former Delta CEO Jerry Grinstein bumps fists with Delta Gate Agents.
Former Delta CEO Jerry Grinstein bumps fists with Delta Gate Agents.

Emergence from Chapter 11 bankruptcy

Forced into bankruptcy after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the airline faced one of the most formidable challenges of its history. But following a successful 19-month restructuring led by Grinstein, during which Delta fundamentally transformed its business, the airline emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy on April 30, 2007. 

Former Delta CEO Jerry Grinstein rings a bell, signifying Delta's emergence from Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Keep Delta My Delta

Driven by Delta employees’ desire to prevent a hostile takeover by US Airways amid bankruptcy, the “Keep Delta My Delta” campaign was supported by Delta pilots, leaders and customers. The “Keep Delta My Delta” tagline launched nationwide on Dec. 19, 2006 – the same day Delta filed its reorganization plan and officially rejected US Airways’ unsolicited merger proposal. 

Delta employees and other hold up "Keep Delta My Delta" signs in support of the airline in 2006.

The Spirit of Delta

The Spirit of Delta's story is well known: facing a weak economy in 1982, Delta needed a new plane to tap into international travel demand. Led by three flight attendants who harnessed the appreciation of their colleagues, “Project 767” raised enough money to purchase Delta’s first Boeing 767. The Spirit of Delta was nearly sold after its retirement in 2006, but Grinstein ensured it was saved and donated to the Delta Flight Museum to preserve its legacy as a symbol of resilience and care.   

The Spirit of Delta plane sits below a large "Project 767" banner.

Launching the Delta Care & Scholarship Fund

When Grinstein was awarded a stock grant following Delta’s emergence from bankruptcy, he declined to accept the funds and instead used them to establish a scholarship fund for Delta employees and their children, as well as a hardship fund for Delta families. 

Today, the Care Fund is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization funded by employee donations that helps Delta people through many unforeseen hardships. Since its inception, the Care Fund has given more than $31 million in grants to Delta employees, retirees and survivors. The Care Fund remains a prime example of Delta people helping Delta people. 

Delta employees made signs for former Delta CEO Jerry Grinstein's last day.
Delta employees made signs for former Delta CEO Jerry Grinstein's last day.
“Keeping focus on our people is what Jerry knew. It’s what Jerry embedded with our leadership team. It’s why we are where we are,” Bastian said during the building renaming event. “Every morning as we walk through these doors, our leadership team will have a chance to think about all that Jerry has taught us and all that he will continue to teach us.” 
Former Delta CEO Jerry Grinstein with current CEO Ed Bastian
A button featuring former Delta CEO Jerry Grinstein that reads "Jerry Grinstein is a friend of mine."