A few months back, we honored Delta Air Lines’ Ed Bastian for being an authentic Social Capital superstar because of what he has done over the years to prove they value people first and foremost. In our previous Q and A  with him soon after that, he revealed how, from the employees to the customers to everyone he and the company interact with, he believes that such a people-centric business model wins out in the end for the business and everyone else.

Now in another amazing and exclusive Q and A with IBT’s Social Capital team, “Ed,” as he likes to be called, gives us an inside view of how doing business in the Social Capital way kept the company on course throughout the pandemic, arguably the most challenging year the travel industry has ever faced, and how it is helping them to not just persevere but to quickly rebound in amazing and inspiring ways. 

Q: Delta continues to see strengthened loyalty based on customer and employee feedback, closing out 2020 with net promoter scores up 20 points versus the prior year. How do you plan to sustain this in a post-pandemic world?

A: Throughout the pandemic, I’ve continued to travel – I’m on a Delta flight nearly every week. One of the reasons is to stay connected with our customers, many of whom are essential workers or those traveling for important family reasons.

On every flight, I hear from grateful customers who are appreciative of the extensive steps we’ve taken to ensure safety and comfort during pandemic-era air travel, ranging from our continued blocking of middle seats to our cleaning procedures and our socially distant boarding process. More than one has asked me how we can afford to invest in the procedures, equipment, and training necessary to achieve this level of service at a time when we are suffering from historic financial losses.

My response is always the same. This is an important investment in our customers, as well as our people and communities. Ultimately, it’s an investment in our future. When people return to flying in large numbers, I have no doubt they will remember how Delta treated them during this time and will reward us with their continued loyalty.

Q: How has the confluence of crises changed the way you lead?

A: As Delta’s CEO, there’s no job more important than caring for my 75,000 colleagues. That starts with ensuring they each feel valued, protected, and have equal opportunity to succeed. Communication and transparency have always been central to that focus, but the past year has really pushed us to innovate in how we communicate with our people.

Most of my days prior to the pandemic were spent in the operation, often with me flying to different cities each week to meet with Delta people. As any good leader knows, your team is the eyes, ears, and heartbeat of your organization and the ones who inform the decisions you make. Because I haven’t had the opportunity to be in person with them as often, I’ve had to find new ways to connect through weekly virtual Town Halls and a frequent cadence of social media posts, videos, and memos.

As someone who is energized from being with my team, talking to a screen instead of being with a crowd of hundreds of Delta people was challenging at first. There’s something about looking a person in their eyes, watching their body language and seeing facial reactions in person that allow you to decide whether you’re going to trust them to lead. And when you’re enduring the darkest days of your company and can only communicate via one-way video or memos, it’s a different experience. But I applaud our team for sticking with me – for showing up to our virtual Town Halls every week since March 2020 and for asking me the hard-hitting questions just as they would if I were making my rounds in the operation. We’ve made the virtual world work for now, but as I tell them every week, more than anything, I cannot wait to be together again.

On a personal level, I’ve leaned on my team more than I ever have, listening and learning from them. That’s been invaluable not only in how we manage the pandemic, but how I navigate conversations of social injustice and inequity. Time spent with our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council, in addition to BOLD, our Black Business Resource Group, has helped me to better understand the actions we need to take to close diversity gaps in representation and ensure every person has equal opportunities to succeed here. Beyond my personal commitment to broaden Delta’s Board of Directors, one of our immediate steps is diversifying our leaders to better reflect the teams they serve. Combined with our commitment to double the percentage of Black officers and directors, as well as minority and female officers, we’re strengthening our team by living up to our shared values of opportunity, fairness, and respect for all. As an organization, we’ve taken action outside of Delta too, advocating for Georgia Hate Crimes legislation and police reform in Minnesota.

Ed Bastian with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms during virtual Town Hall (1) Delta CEO Ed Bastian with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms during a virtual Town Hall. Photo: Delta

Q: What does it mean for Delta to be a purposeful brand and how has that evolved in the past year?

A: The pandemic has caused people to pause and reflect on the meaning of purpose. More than ever, I think consumers want to align with brands that share their values. For almost a century, Delta’s values of integrity, respect, and perseverance have been the foundation of our efforts to connect the world. And over the last year, they’ve guided our path in taking on two of the most pressing issues of our time – equity and sustainability.

As a global airline, Delta connects an incredibly diverse population of customers every day. Our success, mission, and livelihoods depend on our understanding and respect of different perspectives. We can’t connect the world if we don’t reflect the world. While we have a solid track record of diversity, we dug deeper into the data last year and found our management ranks didn’t represent all our people, particularly our Black colleagues. That data-driven approach, along with listening and learning from people inside and outside of Delta, is helping us to eliminate inequities and create opportunities for diverse perspectives at every level of the company. It’s the right thing to do and the best strategy for our business.

Likewise, environmental, social, and governance issues have become increasingly important here in the U.S. and around the world. We recognize that in our industry, jet fuel emissions account for two percent of the world’s carbon footprint and, if left unattended, will double over the next decade. That’s why in the year since we committed to carbon neutrality, we’ve balanced immediate actions to address climate change – like reducing fuel burn through operational efficiencies and replacing older aircraft with newer, more efficient planes – with long-term investments on our path to zero-impact aviation. This includes removing and reducing carbon, educating stakeholders, and building coalitions, because we cannot solve this challenge alone. Our vision is ambitious, but we believe our mission of connecting the world and protecting the planet cannot be mutually exclusive. People should not have to choose between seeing the world and saving it. Our efforts may sound ambitious, but our journey is driven by our values and the commitment we’ve made to serve the world well. It’s one of the reasons why, despite the unprecedented impact of the pandemic on our people and our business, I look back on 2020 as one of the most important years in our company’s history.

Q: In what ways does loyalty factor into the idea of Social Capital?

A: While many airlines fly the same aircraft, travel to popular destinations, and use similar tools, it's our people-focused culture that leads our decision-making and sets Delta apart. Some may call it Social Capitalism, which is a trendy topic, but it’s nothing new to us.

I’ve long been a believer in the virtuous circle – the idea that if you take care of your people, they’ll take great care of your customers, who will reward you with their loyalty and business, which benefits your shareholders. From the early days of the pandemic until now, our people have done just that – shown up every day, despite the many challenges, to care for each other and our customers. It’s what makes me most proud to be part of the Delta family. In August 2020, the Delta spirit was on full display when more than 17,000 employees participated in our early retirement program to save jobs and help us accomplish our goal of zero involuntary furloughs across our U.S. workforce. Combined with even more who have taken voluntary leaves, the sacrifices of our people have secured a strong and prosperous future for Delta.

In turn, making sure they are healthy, safe, and feel valued in every situation is how we’ve operated for almost a century. From our free COVID-19 employee testing program and our own vaccination efforts to virtual Town Halls offering a place for honest dialogue around social injustice, mental health, and wellness, we are living our people-first culture every day and experiencing an increase in loyalty among our team and our customers.

Delta Employee Appreciation Day_2 "It's our people-focused culture that leads our decision-making and sets Delta apart:" Delta CEO Ed Bastian. Photo: Delta