Few CEOs have ever experienced what Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian went through beginning in March 2020 when the world came to a halt because of the COVID pandemic when Delta’s business went from the best of times to the worst of times in one month.
“It was clearly the most difficult and challenging period of our careers and lifetimes,” Bastian told members of the Rotary Club of Atlanta on Sept. 25. The last time Bastian had spoken to the club was in 2019 when the airline was enjoying a banner year.
But travel has since rebounded, first domestically and now internationally.
“While everyone in the world is starting to travel, it’s particularly Americans that are leading the way,” Bastian said during a conversation with Erica Qualls-Battey, area general manager for Marriott International. “It’s so great to see, and it’s exciting because people are reconnecting to joy.”
Bastian touted a documentary Delta commissioned to chronicle its experience – “The Steepest Climb” – because it could be helpful to future generations going through tough times.
During the past three years, it was a conversation Bastian had with Frank Blake, the recently retired chairman of Delta’s board, in March 2020 that really stuck with him.
Blake told him it was “going to be an incredible experience,” a crisis that would not define but display Delta’s true character.
“I know your character. I know your company’s character and culture. And you guys are going to do awesome,” Blake told Bastian. To this day, Bastian said he thinks about those words when making decisions. “It’s what drove a lot of the decisions we made, blocking the middle seats and all the efforts we did to take care of our people through this crazy period.”
One of the funnier moments was when Bastian remembered a conversation he had with his father when trying to figure out a career path. His father told him to become an accountant because he was not a people person. Although he did become an accountant, Bastian did become a people person.
“I love the fact that I now work at a company where I have 100,000 people who feed me,” Bastian said. “They think I feed them. I know they feed me, and they give me the energy to continue to grow. I always tell people my job is to take care of our people. I don’t know how to fly the planes. I don’t know how to fix the planes.”
In fact, Bastian admitted he sometimes has problems doing the basics, like getting a boarding pass. As CEO, he always has people helping him with the logistics of his job.
“When the day comes, hopefully no time soon, when I retire, I’m going to be completely helpless,” said Bastian, who has been CEO for eight years.
Delta recently announced that it would be revising its perks for its most frequent travelers because the benefits were no longer financially sustainable for the airline. Many of the changes will go into effect in 2025. Bastian said that had created controversy among its most loyal customers.
“We’re listening to the feedback,” Bastian said. “We are still assessing what we are going to do. But there will be modifications we will make. You’ll hear about it sometime over the next few weeks.”
Now that Delta is back making a profit, Bastian said the company has been able for its employees to enjoy its profit-sharing program. The airline also shares its profits (1 percent) in the communities it serves.
“This past year we invested $60 million into our communities with the majority of that going into Atlanta,” Bastian said. At the end of the program, Bastian announced a $50,000 gift to support Rotary’s early learning initiative to recognize teachers.
Bastian also spoke highly of Balram “B” Bheodari, general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, which plays a major role in attracting economic development to metro Atlanta.
“It’s the airport that makes that happen. Because without the airport, none of that gets started,” Bastian said. “Our team [owes] B and the city a huge debt of gratitude.”
Bastian also made it clear that he’s a big fan of Atlanta. He has served as chair of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, the Atlanta Committee for Progress and a host of other organizations. He currently is leading the annual campaign for the Woodruff Arts Center, and he is working with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta on its $1 billion campaign.
“Atlanta – I will stay here long after I serve as CEO of Delta Air Lines because we love this city,” Bastian said. “We love the inclusiveness. We love the spirit of ‘can do’ that this city projects.”
Although Atlanta has issues, like all major cities, Bastian said Atlanta continues to lead when it comes to economic growth.
“One of the things we see happening…this is turning into the East Coast technology hub,” Bastian said. “This is becoming the Silicon Valley of the East with every big tech company wanting to have their East Coast presence here. The airport is part of that.”