By Maria Saporta
Delta Air Lines CEO Richard Anderson gave the annual United Way campaign speech to the Rotary Club of Atlanta Monday, but he also shared his insights on the airline industry and the U.S. economy.
Anderson is the 2011 campaign chair for Atlanta’s United Way — hoping that the community will raise a total of $80.4 million for the region’s social and human services.
The relationship between United Way and Rotary dates back to 1913, according to Milton Little, president of Atlanta’s United Way. United Way, then called Associated Charities, been founded in 1905 to help Atlantans survive a devastating ice storm. But my 1913, the organization had been had fallen on hard times.
So Rotary leaders of Atlanta made an appeal to all Rotarians to prevent Associated Charities from “falling to pieces due to lack of funds.” Rotarians responded, and Atlanta’s United Way is now the third largest in the country.
“We all bare collective responsibility to give back to the community — both individually and as corporations,” Anderson said. United Way does the due diligence on all the social service organizations in the community to determine which ones are most effective. Donors can benefit from that research when they donate to United Way.
At Delta, the United Way campaign is a way to communicate to employees the fundamental values of the organization — as a “force for global good.” Delta plans to raise $2 million for United Way system-wide, and it also has supported the National Center for Civil and Human Rights and Morehouse College among other initiatives.
Anderson came wearing a bright pink tie, which he said was in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness month.
“My mother died from breast cancer, and my father died from colon cancer when I was 20 years old,” Anderson said. That’s why Anderson said he had to leave Rotary early to catch a 1:30 flight on a “pink” plane to Detroit with Delta employees who are cancer survivors. Annually, Delta contributes about $1 million for cancer initiatives.
Then Anderson took questions from the audience. He was asked why service is better on Asian carriers than on U.S. carriers.
Anderson said that statement wasn’t supported by data. But then he said Asian carriers, with the exception of Japan, tend to pay their employee’s lower wages. And Anderson said Delta was working to improve the “on board” experience of its flights, but not at the expense of its employees.
“I don’t think we should pay low wages, and I don’t think you should make them retire at 29,” Anderson said.
Anderson was asked about the impact of the new international terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport when it opens in the spring.
“It gives us a long-term advantage,” Anderson said. “I actually think the U.S. economy is stronger than everybody thinks right now.”
He expects the U.S. economy to grow by 2 percent to 3 percent, but the “really big growth” would occur in international markets, especially in the Latin markets of Central America and South America.
“It’s going to be the best international facility in the United States,” Anderson said. “We have a lot of other advantages over most other international airports in the United States…. When you think about the opportunity we have in Atlanta, it’s remarkable to be able to grow the international capacity.”
He also reminded Rotarians that when the new international terminal opens, “You won’t have to recheck your bags.”
Anderson, who did not address the hiccup in the awarding to airport concessions, did say that Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed was doing “a pretty phenomenal job,” and that he had hired a “top-notched aviation professional” — Louis Miller as airport general manager.
Anderson also was asked about the Federal Aviation Administration and air traffic controllers. Describing himself as an optimist, Anderson said he let pessimism creep in when dealing with that issue.
“I’m not confident that we have the focus and the ability as a country to reform the air traffic control system,” Anderson said, adding that the system is using antiquated technology. “You use more navigation technology in your cars than many of the airplanes we still fly.”
Then Anderson shared his impressions of what’s wrong with the United States today.
“Our track record is not good as a country,” he said. “I don’t know what it is about our country. We have lost our risk-taking appetite.”
What happened to the spirit that existed when the country built its interstate highway system starting in the 1950s, Anderson asked rhetorically.
Anderson then was asked about the national labor policy, which he called “counter-productive.”
He then said he agreed with Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent’s statements that there sometimes is a better business climate outside the United States, in countries such as China.
“We see the same thing in Mexico,” Anderson said. “They balance their budget. The peso is gaining strength against the currencies of other countries. It’s a good place to invest.”
But Anderson then ended his talk to Rotary with another appeal — this time to help U.S. businesses better compete at home, stating: “There’s no reason why we should let China pass us as the largest economy in the world in my lifetime.”