By Maria Saporta
Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian, in a rare public appearance since the airline discontinued discounted fares to National Rifle Association members, basked in the applause during the Global HOPE Forum meeting in Atlanta Wednesday.
Operation HOPE CEO John Hope Bryant initiated the conversation praising Bastian for standing up for what’s right despite having “somebody threaten your balance sheet.”
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle championed an effort to punish Delta for discontinuing the NRA discount – helping kill a proposed gasoline tax break for the airlines serving Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
Instead of backing down, Bastian sent a memo to its employees that stated: “Our values are not for sale” – a line that Bryant said should become Delta’s calling card.
“Much more than somebody hurting your business, I think they just helped your business,” said Bryant, who gushed about Bastian’s calmness and character. “I thought I liked you before. I’m in love with you now.”
Bastian, who received a standing ovation from the hundreds jammed in the ballroom of the Marriott Marquis, thanked Bryant for the kind comments.
“People said it was a brave thing to do,” Bastian said. “It was the right thing to do. You have got to stand up for your customers and your employees. We didn’t do it for economic gain, and we are happy to move on.”
But Bastian made it clear he is watching and waiting to see whether the state’s elected leaders will restore cuts in the aviation gas tax. (By the way, only 13 NRA members took advantage of the Delta discount).
“The state will decide what it does,” Bastian said. “We are not going to let the state run our business. We believe in the Second Amendment. But we also believe in the First Amendment.”
Bryant said that Delta’s stance reminded him of when Coca-Cola executives made sure Atlantans attended a dinner in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., after he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Coca-Cola let it be known that if Atlantans didn’t support King, the company could move to another city.
After Cagle sent out a tweet saying he would kill any legislation that would benefit Delta unless it reinstated the NRA discount, several of the nation’s governors and mayors made overtures to lure Atlanta-based Delta to move its corporate headquarters to their communities.
“This is home despite all the fuss we went through over the NRA issue,” Bastian said. “We want to affirm we are not moving.”
Bastian went on to say that when it comes to expansion, the airline believes “in investing here first.”
When asked what keeps him up late at night, Bastian said it was the airline’s ability to compete globally against airlines that are subsidized by their governments – saying the issue was most extreme with Middle Eastern airlines, such as Qatar Airways.
“We are investing heavily in technology,” Bastian said. “We are going to turn 90 years old next year. We can’t act like a 90-year-old person.” Instead the airline needs to be nimble and agile to continue to succeed in the marketplace.
Bastian added that the airline’s greatest strength is its workforce.
“Fifteen years ago, we were in a pretty dark place, and we had to make a lot of tough choices,” said Bastian, recalling layoffs and pay cuts. The airline made the commitment that when Delta’s fiscal picture improved, it would reward its employees.
Now, every year on Valentine’s Day, Delta employees receive 15 percent of the airline’s profits the previous year.
“Last year, we made $6 billion, and our employees made $1.1 billion in profit-sharing,” said Bastian, who added that the company’s executives are not included in that profit-sharing plan. He credited Delta’s success “entirely to our employees.”
Bastian then added that people want to be sure to fly Delta on Valentine’s Day because employees are in an especially good mood that day having just received their bonuses.