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Delta’s Ed Bastian talks about guiding ACP, Mayor Bottoms in challenging times

Maria Saporta
Ed Bastian Delta

By Maria Saporta

Atlanta’s top business and civic leaders provided moral support to Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms at Friday’s quarterly meeting of the Atlanta Committee for Progress.

Between COVID-19, the economic downturn and the recent protest, in some ways the ACP meeting turned into a “therapy session” for everyone involved, ACP’s executive director Shan Cooper said half-jokingly.

And Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Air Lines and the 2020 chair of ACP, played the role of therapist and convener.

Blake, Waller and Bastian

The Atlanta directors at Delta Air Lines’ 2017 annual meeting – Chairman Frank Blake; Coca-Cola’s Kathy Waller and CEO Ed Bastian (Photo by Maria Saporta)

“This was something none of us could have predicted,” Bastian said in a telephone interview after the virtual ACP meeting. According to Bastian, there was record attendance, with all but three members on the call. By the way, ACP did have to change its bylaws to allow board members to connect virtually rather than in person.

“Obviously, everyone continues to stay concerned and on heightened alert as the state is reopening,” Bastian said. “In Georgia, we have not seen cases drop. They are leveling off. And they are ticking up in some spots.”

Speaking to the leaders Friday morning was Dr. Carlos del Rio, a professor of medicine at Emory University’s School of Medicine and a professor of global health and epidemiology at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health>

Dr. del Rio encouraged the mayor and all the business and civic leaders “to do everything we’re doing,” Bastian said. “He talked a lot about masks. If we have more people wearing masks, the spread of the disease would be lower.”

During the meeting, Mayor Bottoms updated the group on the difficult situation the Atlanta Police Department has been facing since the murder of George Floyd. About 12 police officers resigned this past weekend partly due to the increased stress of their jobs. The mayor singled out the work of Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields.

“There was a strong statement of support,” Bastian said. “This is a very difficult time. It’s challenging across our country.”

ACP also reiterated its support for Georgia to pass hate crimes legislation when legislators reconvene next week.

Ed Bastian Delta

Delta CEO Ed Bastian before company’s annual meeting in 2016 (Photo by Maria Saporta)

“The mayor got lots of kudos” from ACP members, Cooper said. “It was a moment for people to pause and thank her.”

The leaders also asked the mayor, ”How can we help you moving forward?”

Over the next few weeks, ACP members will explore ways to help the city shore up small businesses and to make sure a crisis doesn’t develop with people being evicted because they can’t pay their rents.

“The large corporations in the city are managing the crisis the best we can,” Bastian said. “It’s really the small businesses that we are worried about.”

When asked about how Delta was faring during the COVID-19 pandemic, Bastian sounded upbeat.

“We are doing the best we can under the circumstances,” Bastian said. “I’m proud of the team. Our priority is the safety of our people and safety of our customers.”

Bastian said it actually is one of the best times to fly. Delta has capped off its planes to 60 percent occupancy; it sanitizes the planes after every flight; and everyone is required to wear masks.

“Since the first of May, we’ve seen a tremendous amount of reduction in cases,” Bastian said. Of the 50,000 people currently on the job, only 22 employees tested positive for the coronavirus last month – a far better ratio than the national average.

Ed Bastian Hala Moddelmog

Metro Atlanta Chamber’s Hala Moddelmog in a conversation at Atlanta Rotary with Delta CEO Ed Bastianom 2016 (Photo by Maria Saporta)

When asked if it was safe to fly on Delta, Bastian said: “Absolutely. Yes.”

Delta is now carrying 70,000 passengers a day – about three times what it was flying when it hit bottom in mid-April.

“But that’s about 12-15 percent of the customers we want to be flying,” said Bastian, who acknowledged the airline, which had had a record year in 2019, would lose money in 2020. “I’m thinking this is probably going to be a two- to three-year period of time to get our business back. Even then, we may not be as big as we were in 2019.”

Bastian acknowledged that people have become much more comfortable with video conferences, and that likely “replace some portion of business travel,” a major source of revenue for Delta.

“We will be a bit smaller when we come through this – maybe 10 percent to 20 percent smaller,” Bastia said. “We are making changes to our business model. We are still the preferred business airline.”

Bastian also thanked the 40,000 employees – nearly half of its workforce – who have taken voluntary time off. “They are doing that to save us money,” he said.

Looking forward, Bastian said Concourse B at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport will open at the end of June. And he believes travel is coming back with people wanting to go places and realizing that it’s safe to fly.

When asked how the impact of COVID-19 has affected him personally, Bastian didn’t flinch.

ACP leadership

When the Atlanta Committee for Progress was meeting in person: Left to right: Doug Hertz, Shan Cooper and Larry Gellerstadt stand behind Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (seated) in December 2018 (Photo by Maria Saporta)

“This has been the challenge of my career,” Bastian said. “We had to go right to our instincts, which were protecting our people and our customers.”

Then he joked that he feels he’s been “running a healthcare organization rather than an airline.”

Next year, Bastian will serve as the chairman of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, and he said he was pleased with chamber picked from its ranks when it named Katie Kirkpatrick as its new president.

ACP did thank Hala Moddelmog, the outgoing president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, as well as two outgoing board members – Dave Abney, who is retiring as CEO of UPS; and Claire Sterk, who is stepping down as president of Emory University.

“When you look at this time, the word that come to mind is resiliency,” Bastian said. “If you look at where we are as a nation with challenges of racism and social justice, it’s important that our leaders across every sector of our nation stand for those who are disadvantaged in any way.”

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Maria Saporta
Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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