Profile: Delta CEO Ed Bastian

Profile: Delta CEO Ed Bastian
Edited by Travel Weekly


    Ed Bastian was 25 years old before he ever set foot on an aeroplane so the accountant was a real long shot to get a gig at Delta. Not as it prepares to celebrate its 100th year, under his stewardship, Delta is recognised as the world’s number one airline where 60 per cent of its customers book direct.

    Travel Weekly’s CEO David Hovenden saw the veteran aviation executive speak in Las Vegas last month at Adobe’s Summit.

    Watch the whole conversation from 5 minutes 10 seconds below: 

    As CEO of Delta Air Lines, Ed Bastian confides that the “airline business is not an industry that’s for the faint of heart”. His droll understatement becomes starker when you consider Delta puts on 5000 flights a day and serves 500,000 people around the world. That’s a lot of touch points to get right or wrong, which could impact your brand profoundly every single day.

    While business as usual in the airline industry is never anything like normal, the past few years have been extraordinarily challenging. Add into this mix that Bastian was 25 years old before he ever stepped foot on an aeroplane, and you have one highly unusual industry leader. Having worked for Delta now for 25 years, Delta is set to be named the 2024 Airline of the Year by aviation publication Air Transport World.

    In the US, Delta generated 40% of the industry profits yet only has 20% of the market share “So our seats are twice as valuable as any other seat in the industry. That’s what a brand stands for,” says Bastian.

    While Covid was obviously a shared problem across the globe, Delta was unique in how it as an airline dealt with the problem. Among the carnage of lockdown, Delta was the only airline not to furlough a single employee. And from material examples of commitment to his employees like that, Bastian has been able to forge a culture of pride and achievement that’s really paying dividends.

    “It’s a really important industry and I think if you know why you exist if you know what your purpose is, you know the importance that your customers and not just your customers, your community, your world places on what you do that gives you the confidence you’re going to get through those challenges and that’s what kept us going right through Covid,” he said.

    “Travel is one of the things that unites and brings understanding and brings fellowship and brings joy. So, I knew we were going to get back and when you have that confidence that enables you to be bold and courageous in the steps you’re taking that allows you to be humble when you realize the depths of the challenges that you have to work through.

    The transparency that’s required (and we knew we were on stage all through Covid) people were watching how Delta was one step at a time starting to bring the world back together especially in the United States. It was an incredible feat that our team displayed but it was one of the things that I’ll look back on and understand that the resilience that you build, that muscle that you create over time, how powerful that is and it’s really what our brand stands for. It’s a resilient brand.

    On not laying off any of his 90,000 employees during the pandemic and subsequently growing that work force to 100,000 Bastian is emphatic on the point.

    “It’s easy to say your people first. What company doesn’t say that? But it’s actions like that we were the only airline in the world that didn’t furlough a single person.”

    Since being named Delta’s CEO in May 2016, Bastian has expanded Delta’s leading position as the world’s most reliable airline while growing its global footprint and enhancing the customer experience in the air and on the ground. During his tenure as CEO, Delta has become the world’s most awarded airline, having been named the Wall Street Journal’s top US airline; the top-ranking airline in Fortune’s World’s Most Admired Companies; the most on-time global airline by FlightGlobal; the Platinum Award recipient for operational excellence by Cirium; among TIME100’s Most Influential Companies; a Glassdoor Best Place to Work; and more.

    In 2018, Fortune magazine named Bastian among “The World’s 50 Greatest Leaders,” and in 2019, he was elected to the membership of the Council on Foreign Relations. In 2021, amidst a global pandemic, Bastian was awarded for his Executive Leadership in FlightGlobal’s 2021 Airline Strategy Awards and named among the Top 10 CEOs of 2021 in Glassdoor’s Employees’ Choice Awards as a leader who excelled at supporting their people. Most recently, Ed was honored by his peer CEOs and named Chief Executive magazine’s 2023 Chief Executive of the Year.

    Bastian’s values-based leadership propelled the airline to become the industry leader and a trusted global brand, guided by empathy, humanity and devotion to service, which has served Delta well in good times and bad. He has served as a Delta leader and steered the company through the most challenging periods of the company’s history, including 9/11, bankruptcy and COVID-19.

    When asked to sum up his job in five words, Ed’s response is: “Taking care of our people.”

    A350 soaring above the clouds. (Supplied) 

    Business at 500 miles an hour

    Last year Delta announced it would roll out free Wi-Fi on all planes. “We’re still continuing to roll out fast free Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi that works . . . a lot of people say they have Wi-Fi, not a lot of people have Wi-Fi that works and is free at the same time.

    “We’ve got it through most of our [US] domestic system at this point we’re in the process of putting it on all of our international equipment as well by the end of the year. . .

    “Wi-Fi sounds like a fairly simple thing . . . but when you consider the fact we’ve got 1,000 planes that are flying at 500 miles an hour around the world bouncing around trying to create that sterile high speed connection is really difficult.”

    Delta has, however, been able to master that and what it’s enabled the airline to do is to bring people into its community at an even deeper level. The only thing it asks its customers to do is to be a member of its loyalty program (SkyMiles).

    That’s really reaped the rewards for Delta because over the past year it’s had more than 2 million new members join its program.

    “Customers we already had. We just didn’t know who they were come and sign on in order to get the free Wi-Fi . . .  Think about what that 2 million customers that you have that you can’t even market to. You can’t personalise. You can’t serve well. That’s huge!

    “Then on top of that we have brought a community of partners. We’ve got T-Mobile. We’ve got Paramount+. We’ve got Walmart+. We’ve got Amex. We’ve got the New York Times . . .  We’re also in the midst of rolling out is all those seatback screens that we have on board because we have more three times as many seatback screens as any airline in the world has we’re turning them into smart screens.”

    Digital investments

    Digital technologies is providing Delta the opportunity to have what it likes to think of as a seamless experience for its customers and a unified experience.

    You envision the technology infrastructure and it’s kind of is what you think it is there’s there’s like thousands of applications and programs that have been developed over time and the ability to knit them together and to be able to develop a modern experience from a technical standpoint is quite a challenge so we’re working actively on that we’ve moved most of our infrastructure to the cloud through AWS.

    “We want customers as they travel through the Delta system whether you’re booking a trip online or needing to talk to one of our reservation agents or going through security or picking up your bag at the end of the journey or being on board with us and interacting through our Wi-Fi channels you can engage we want that relationship to be robust, to be connected, for the information to be consistent as people travel through the system and we know that our Delta app now is one of the leading apps. Period!

    Delta wants people to be able to have control of their experience. “One of the challenges of travel it can be stressful right? Our ideas is: it shouldn’t be as stressful as it is. It should be something you look forward to and that you’re looking forward to where you’re going and your journey is part of that and so we’ve made the Delta app an opportunity for people to control their experience. While they’re on board they want to make changes they want to find out information about where they’re going and by the way a lot of our customers connect onto another plane, where that is and how that’s all working. The more information and the easier it is to use, customers feel a sense of comfort and peace and control around the experience and that’s where the technology really makes a huge difference.”

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