2020 has not been kind to airlines, but some are coming out of the crisis in better shape than others. For Delta Air Lines, it has been an opportunity to show the world what it’s made of. Ed Bastian, the CEO at the airline, says it has been ‘humbling’ to be part of the worst crisis in history, but that he is proud of what Delta has achieved.
The world is watching
While many airlines around the world have focused on survival during 2020, Delta has, in some respects, thrived. While the US aviation industry has seen the furlough of around 30,000 workers, Delta has not laid off a single one. Of course, it’s not been easy. Speaking at the Future Travel Experience Expo this week, Delta’s CEO Ed Bastian said,
“It’s been humbling … We paid out $1.6 billion in profit sharing to our employees in February, and 30 days later, we have no revenue. You can’t fall any further. You’ve gone from your highest high to your lowest low, with very little time to respond and react.”
However, the Delta CEO explained that he wasn’t willing to let panic take hold. He commented that there was “no time for us to sit around and be disillusioned”, instead putting all energies into finding a way through the crisis. He knew that this year would be historic for the whole world, and realized early on that the world’s eyes would be watching to see how companies like Delta responded.
Noting a conversation he held with Delta chairman Frank Blake right at the start of the crisis, Bastian said,
“He said many times that people think that out of crises, character is born. It’s not. Character is revealed through crisis. He said, the values of Delta Airlines, the values of our leadership will be on display. People will be looking to see what Delta is made of … truer words have not been spoken.”
Knowing that history was watching, the Delta CEO set out to make 2020 not just a year of survival, but a year in which it could thrive. While all the usual pandemic-related activities have been ongoing, it’s interesting to see just how many other issues have remained high on the agenda for Delta Air Lines, setting it in a good place to come out of the crisis with its reputation intact.
Looking out for people and passengers
Bastian’s first priority for the pandemic was to take care of his people, and of the passengers they were flying. He discussed how the airline responded quickly to the needs of passengers and employees, leading the charge on new standards of health and hygiene.
Throughout the crisis, Delta has put its passengers first. It remains the only airline to persist with the middle seat block, and hasn’t hesitated to issue bans for passengers refusing to wear masks onboard. But it hasn’t just been the passengers that have been taken care of at the airline.
In stark contrast to its competitors, Delta has not furloughed a single employee. While pay has had to be cut in many cases, the airline has moved to thank employees with two free travel passes each. Despite all the challenges and financial losses of 2020, the Delta CEO believes in a better future. He said,
“It’s been a year where you realize how vulnerable you can be. You realize how tough this industry is. And you also realize how much you need your people … By the spring, we’ll be back to a point where we will be generating positive cash. We’ll have managed a pandemic, a once in 100 year crisis. We’ll be through it within a space of a year, which is pretty remarkable.”
While much of what Delta has been undertaking has been similar to the actions of other airlines, it has not let slip the fundamental issues that were high on its agenda pre-pandemic. From addressing racial issues to pushing for sustainability, in many ways, Delta has thrived during COVID.
It was interesting to see that, during the Future Travel Experience Expo, the Delta CEO was wearing not just a Delta pin on his lapel, but a Black Lives Matter pin too. Bastian talked about how Delta was addressing inequality in its organization, not using COVID as an excuse to give this important issue a back seat. He said,
“I went and did a fair bit of research. I disaggregated the data. I saw within our broader family at Delta that we do pretty well on diversity and gender and people of color, but when I dig underneath and look at the data, I see there’s one proof one population that we haven’t done as well by, and that’s our black colleagues.
“We have a little over 20% of our employees are black, yet only 7% of our leadership is black … That’s not a picture of a fair and just environment with opportunity and development afforded to all groups.”
Confidently owning the situation at Delta, Bastian pledged to take strides to reset the balance at the airline. He said he feels he is personally accountable to every member of his team and is obliged to do what he can to give this section of the Delta family the opportunities it deserves.
“That’s what systemic racism is … this hasn’t gone on for years, this has gone on for centuries, and it’s about time that we took a stand on it.”
Pushing ahead on sustainability
Delta announced in February, a month before the pandemic really took hold, that it was to become a carbon-neutral airline. While the airline has always pushed for more sustainable operations, it could be excused for letting this one slip, given the difficult operating environment.
However, Bastian says that the issue of sustainability is still at the forefront of the decisions Delta is taking. In fact, he says that the airline is, now, carbon neutral. He commented,
“Even through this, we will continue to invest in the technologies, the offsets, the products that are going to be able to replenish the world, the environment and our planet.”
While fleet reshuffles have inevitably made it somewhat easier for Delta to achieve its carbon-neutral goals, this achievement has still taken great effort to realize. Bastian noted that while sustainable fuels could unlock a low carbon future for aviation, this is not the time to be sitting and waiting. He said,
“In the meantime, we can be investing in reforestation projects and clean water, and opportunities to eliminate plastics and recycling. There are so many steps that are involved in this, that we can take action today. We are taking action today.”
Betting on biometrics
Even before the pandemic, Delta was a big advocate of biometric technologies. During the crisis, touchless and biometric solutions have become more important than ever, with accelerated uptake seen in all corners of the world. Bastian continues to push for more biometric adoption and believes it will be highly beneficial, long after the crisis has ended. He said,
“Biometrics is safe, it’s secure and protective of the environment and… it’s touchless. It is the wave of the future, and I do envision an environment where we’re going to be more safe and more secure because we’ve invested in biometrics.”
Delta began offering facial recognition at its hub in Atlanta in December 2018. Over 2019, it expanded to offer the same at Detroit, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City, expanding to Los Angeles in September and Seattle in November. This year, it has announced the launch of the same at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport (DTW) to get passengers through security, with a pledge to extend this to bag drop and boarding by early 2021.
Delta began the year with some huge announcements around technology at the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas. None of those ambitions have gone away, and although the timeline may have been skewed by COVID, Bastian and his team remain committed to a tech-focused upgrade to the passenger travel experience.
Ready for clearer skies
All this adds up to a powerful Delta coming out of the COVID crisis. Bastian and his team have done what is necessary to not just survive COVID, but to look back on what they did and hold their heads high. The Delta CEO concluded his interview with some inspirational words. He said,
“We’re about ready to get into some clean open skies here. And we’re going to come through this a better country. We’re going to come through this a better industry. We’re ready to get back, and airlines are going to power the way.”