Richard Anderson: The Legacy Of Delta’s Eighth CEO

Delta has had several impactful chief executive officers over the years that have had a significant influence on the business. Today, we look at the journey that the airline’s eighth CEO, Richard Anderson, had with the Atlanta-based carrier.

Delta Air Lines
Richard Anderson left Delta in a stronger position following his tenure with the carrier. Photo: Getty Images

An experienced figure

Anderson made his debut in the airline industry after taking on a legal role at Continental Airlines. Interestingly, he was the carrier’s representative during the investigation of Continental Flight 1713’s crash in 1987. He didn’t consider having a career in aviation, but it would be this world that he would master for the next three decades.

He transferred to Northwest Airlines in 1990 and was eventually named senior vice president of technical operations and airport affairs. Subsequently, he was promoted to CEO in June 2001.

Richard Anderson Delta Chief Executive
Anderson took a brief break from the airline industry between 2004 and 2007 when he became executive vice president of United Healthcare. Photo: Getty Images

The right backing

Anderson was appointed as CEO of Delta in the summer of 2007, which was the same year that it emerged from a two-year bankruptcy filing. Daniel A. Carp, former chairman of Delta’s board of directors shared why Anderson was the right man for the job during this crucial time. His business etiquette meant he had the right tools to take on such a role.

“After a thorough search, the Board concluded that Richard Anderson possesses the right blend of seasoned leadership, strategic skills, international experience and airline knowledge the company needs to navigate the industry’s challenges and capitalize on its opportunities,” Carp said in a press release seen by Simple Flying.

“Well-qualified with a proven track record in this highly competitive industry, Richard has a demonstrated ability to master the competitive pressures of today’s marketplace with innovation and an unwavering focus on the customer. He brings complementary strengths to Delta’s highly talented leadership team and high admiration for the people of Delta and their recent success in restructuring to become a fiercely competitive airline.”

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Delta was confident in Anderson’s skills to take the airline to the next level. Photo: Getty Images

Hitting the ground running

As soon as Anderson took on his leadership role at Delta, he and his team introduced several measures to try and set the airline apart from its counterparts. For instance, it introduced an employee profit-sharing program. Namely, the carrier paid out 10% of earnings before taxes each year while management compensation was paid out in bonuses.

Then, in 2008, following Delta’s merger with Northwest Airlines, it added a stock ownership plan. This initiative gave pilots, flight attendants, ground crew, and support staff 15% of the firm’s equity.

“At Delta we understand the perils of the traditional airline business model. The industry has in recent decades been known for short-term thinking, destructive decision making, and poor employee relations. However, in 2007, after emerging from bankruptcy, our company decided that we would be different. Delta already had the right culture and values and the right people, including directors with diverse expertise. We knew that with the right strategies, we could break away from our competitors,” Anderson said, as reported by Harvard Business Review.

“The first step was to adjust—along with other airlines—to new market realities. We would need to add scale and expand our geographic reach by merging with another U.S. carrier and partnering with foreign ones. We would need to revamp and reorganize our fleet and airport operations. And we would need to change our pricing model. We did all those things. But we also realized that conventional moves would not be enough. To come back on top, Delta would have to further strengthen its culture and pursue more-innovative strategies.”

Richard Anderson and Richard Branson
The executive was influential in the move that saw Delta Air Lines purchase a 49% stake in Virgin Atlantic. Photo: Getty Images

A mixed response

Anderson praised the new ways of thinking about the carrier’s organizational structure and operations, along with the company’s determination to get staff invested, figuratively and literally, in running a top-notch airline. He said that thanks to these factors, Delta became one of the healthiest, most profitable operators across the globe.

However, not everyone at Delta was impressed with Anderson’s ways. In 2010, he led an anti-union campaign against the Association of Flight Attendants. Notably, he called the labor union “immoral.”

Richard Anderson Delta
Anderson was firmly against unions at Delta. Photo: Getty Images

Measures in place

The Wall Street Journal highlights that with Anderson at the helm, Delta put together a global route network by taking stakes in foreign carriers and purchasing an oil refinery. Meanwhile, it impressed passengers with its assertive, nonunion airport agents and flight attendants that upheld trustworthy service. Distinctly, in 2015, excluding commuter affiliates, the airline recorded 161 days of no canceled flights.

Altogether, Anderson felt that it was Delta’s leadership’s goal to be clear about the courteous culture, open communication, financial discipline, and efficient services that it should deliver. In the spring of 2016, at the age of 60, he stepped down from his post and became executive chairman of the board. However, in October of that year, he retired from the board altogether.

In June 2017, the businessman became Amtrak’s president and CEO. After working with the rail company for three years, he stepped down as CEO in April 2020. He continued to stay on as a senior advisor to his replacement William J. Flynn until the end of the year. With the shakeup that the travel industry is going through this year, Anderson’s expertise would certainly have helped during this transition.

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Delta is no stranger to a challenge. Photo: Getty Images

Leaving a legacy

Francis S. “Frank” Blake, who is now the non-executive chairman of Delta’s board of directors highlighted Anderson’s impact on the company. Ultimately, the professional’s leadership was evident throughout the firm.

Blake said that workers throughout the airline established themselves as leaders in reliability, customer service, and financial performance under Anderson’s leadership. He added that the retiree’s years of service to the airline founded a legacy of an unmatched dedication to its customers, staff, investors, and the communities it serves, making him one of the great leaders in global aviation.

Altogether, what are your thoughts about Richard Anderson’s time at Delta Air Lines? What do you make of his impact on the carrier over the years? Let us know what you think of the former CEO in the comment section.