Ed Bastian, a 20-year-veteran of Delta Air Lines, had held various leadership roles at the airline, including president and chief financial officer. But he says he still didn’t appreciate the intricacies of the CEO role until he got the top job five years ago. A job that Bastian calls “unusual” has been further complicated by a global pandemic that shut down travel, growing pressure to diversify corporate ranks, and, more recently, calls for executives to speak out on political and social issues. Bastian sat down with Fast Company to reflect on his tenure as CEO. Edited excerpts follow:
Fast Company: When you started in the CEO job five years ago, it was far less commonplace for CEOs to speak out on social and political issues. Now it’s expected. What do you think has changed in society more broadly, and in business culture more specifically?
Ed Bastian: You’re right. In fact, growing up in the business world, you’re generally taught to keep your head low and make sure you don’t land on the front page. And you certainly don’t want to alienate anybody. You want all your customers to love you and not to make a statement for yourself. But I think over the course of the last, probably a little bit more than five years . . . the level of the divisiveness in our society has actually elevated corporate leaders to a higher position of credibility in the public’s eye, particularly as political leaders have become unfortunately so partisan in their views. Coupled with the fact that you’ve got a new generation of our customers who are looking at our brands and wanting to know the values [we] stand for . . . and so, as a result of that, I think it’s not possible to solely keep your head low, because if you keep your head low, that speaks also to people—not speaking. So I think we’ve all been starting to become somewhat uncomfortably accustomed to having to express views when we need to.
One issue that hits particularly close to home for Delta is that your home state, Georgia, has passed legislation around voting rights. You, along with Coca-Cola, Major League Baseball, and others, have all come out opposing some of the legislative changes. Talk about how you decided to get involved in that issue.
It certainly was not an issue I wanted to get involved with, and I was trying to stay a bit out of it. [We were] trying to influence it [by] having our lobbyists influence it from behind the scenes. But when it became apparent that the legislation that was arrived at had such an impact on our people—because I’m speaking on behalf of many of our people, not myself exclusively—I felt the need to speak.
What is the process you go through as a corporate leader? Do you need to get your board to sign off when you make a public statement that is as newsworthy as the one that Delta made? Do you consult with employees? Because we’ll talk about this a little bit later, but there are ramifications for speaking out.
There are ramifications, and I think we’re still understanding that as corporate leaders. And I don’t think there’s any one playbook that you go to, and I won’t go into any internal company dialogue or discussions because I don’t think that’s necessarily relevant. But the voice that I was speaking from was really as the leader of the largest company here, the largest employer in the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia, with the largest minority and particularly African American base of employees, and understanding from their vantage point the impact that this legislation had.
You have faced ramifications for speaking out on issues in the past, such as in March 2018: After the National Rifle Association made divisive comments following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, you rescinded a group travel discount for the NRA. And you said at the time that it wasn’t a political decision, but it quickly became very politicized. And most notably the state ended a tax exemption that applied to Delta. Talk a little bit about how you weigh the potential public blowback from something like this.
You’ve got to pick your issues as to when you feel the need to speak, because there are ramifications whether you do or don’t. For me, the issue has to be relevant to our company. It has to be relevant to our people. It has to have some degree of relationship to our values as to what we stand for. And it needs to be a topic that we have a point of view on that is relevant. There are plenty of political topics that people do sometimes wade in on. I’m not trying to do any of that. [I’m] really trying to see if there is something that we feel is in direct conflict with the values of what our brand stands for, and that’s what helps inform that judgment.
And what does Delta stand for? You’ve talked about the brand value a couple of times. Can you articulate what you see as Delta’s brand value and how that’s evolved during your time as CEO?
Our brand is about uniting people. It’s about bringing the world together. In fact, we like to say “Delta, no one better connects the world.” That’s what we do physically, we unite the world. One of the reasons why I feel there’s the level of the divisiveness in society particularly over the last year is because we’ve all been disconnected. We haven’t been actually able to physically connect and unite and build on and create the relationships and the understanding that travel and transportation can help foster. It’s a company of service. We talk about providing the very best service to our people so that they can provide the very best service to our customers. And it’s a brand that’s known for its integrity, respect, in understanding, in inclusiveness.
How do you know that what you’re doing is working, whether it’s for your employees or for the communities you serve? What kind of feedback have you received from different constituents, including customers, as a result of some of the actions that you’ve taken?
Unfortunately our society is very divided on many topics, including the voter rights legislation. And I’ve heard from a lot of people who did not like what I said. I’ve heard from a lot of people who loved what I said. That really wasn’t the point . . . to try to sway popular opinion. It was to make certain that our people, our Delta employees, heard how the company was standing behind their concerns. And to the extent we stood out, and not enough companies in the state spoke as loudly as Coca-Cola and Delta did, those are their individual decisions, I’m not going to critique anyone. But it was something that I felt that our people needed to be heard on. And I felt a personal obligation to do that for them.
Delta has pledged to become the world’s first carbon-neutral airline. What does that mean, and what are the ways that Delta is proactively seeking to reduce its emissions and really adopt technologies that will help you to become a more sustainable company?
The commitment we made was in February of 2020, shortly before we became fully aware of the impact of the pandemic. And we made the commitment to fully offset our carbon footprint as we were generating or utilizing the resources and creating the carbon that we’re looking to mitigate. It’s a holistic effort. Every new plane we bring to the skies is 25% more fuel efficient than the old planes. It’s being mindful of recycling and minimizing use of plastic. And trying to find ways that we can engage, throughout our operations, with clean water and any type of ability to minimize the environmental impact. But the big footprint that this industry creates is largely fossil fuel. It’s the use of jet fuel. It’s almost 98% of the impact we have on our planet. And so the only way we’re ever going to fully mitigate is by investing in offsets that can use nature’s technology to reclaim that carbon. We’ve invested tens of millions of dollars over the last couple of years in projects in different parts of the world. We are involved with [a project] in Africa … called the Great Green Wall, which builds a forest from one end of the ocean to the other, across the entire continent of Africa. We realized the world of carbon offsets . . . are fraught with some challenge. They’re a bit controversial as to their efficacy.
We’re investing with a number of large corporate customers in the use of sustainable aviation fuels, which reduces the impact. Unfortunately right now, they’re not commercially feasible, so we’re talking to the [Biden] administration about providing a blended tax credit that can help create greater commercial research and development of sustainable aviation fuels that we can use. This is an effort to save our planet. We don’t want customers to have to choose between seeing the planet and saving the planet.
When will business travel come back and what will it look like?
I think it’ll come back differently than it left pre-pandemic. Technologies such as these video technologies have helped keep people connected, but they’re not a substitute for business travel, they’re a complement. There’s nothing that replaces the opportunity to be present in the moment, to create the relationships, the collaboration, the energy from being together right now. These technologies are very transactional. We’ve had these technologies for years [but] we haven’t used them because they’re not as effective as being there in person. So there’s been a forced adaptation. . . . We’ve had to figure out how to incorporate them into our business schedule.
That said, I also know that we’re going to be seeing different work settings. Hybrid workplaces are going to become more commonplace into the future, which means people will not be congregating necessarily in the office as much. They may be working out of different parts of the country, which gives them new ways to travel, new reasons why they have to travel. So if you think about all this, the traditional business travel mix will probably be reduced, say 20%, 25% from where it had been pre-pandemic. But I think we’re going to pick up another layer of opportunity for people to travel and to be together based on the fact that they’ve moved from their workplace. They’re living in Florida, the mountains, not in Manhattan, and need to travel maybe to get back to their place of work or to get back to other meetings or for other reasons.
Total travel this summer in the U.S. is going to be back to almost to pre-pandemic levels—not everywhere, but in many parts of the country it will be back pretty close to pre-pandemic levels. People said that they’ll never get on an airplane again, right? . . . [But] they’re already back, and they’re back because people miss being with each other and they miss the freedom, the adventure, the romance, the excitement that travel brings.
As you think about your competition for the business traveler a couple of years from now, will you be messaging against Zoom or Teams the way you message against, say, a competitive airline?
I don’t think so. I can remember years ago people said that about email.
I’m curious to hear a little bit of your perspective on issues like vaccine passports. Where are you in that conversation right now?
We’re not going to require vaccines to travel domestically. That’s been clear right from the start. We’re not testing anyone to travel domestically. The aircraft itself is one of the cleanest places you can be, with the quality of the air-filtration systems we use, the rapid movement of the air. We cleanse the entire cabin air every 2 to 4 minutes; 30 times an hour you have completely fresh air brought from outside the cabin. I don’t think vaccines are going to matter with respect to getting people to travel domestically, and operationally it’d be a nightmare. It’s hard enough navigating the airport through TSA [the Transportation Security Administration] and everything, and then adding a whole other layer of looking for your test and your vaccine.
Internationally, however, I think it’s going to be required to open up international borders. That’s the basis of conversation [we’re having] with many countries around the world in terms of how we open up the world. There’s a lot of conversation going on in Europe, particularly along the Mediterranean, those countries that really can’t afford to lose out on the U.S tourist dollar for two summers in a row, and they’ve said they will accept U.S. vaccinated travelers. We’re building—I wouldn’t call it a health passport—travel credentials so that if you are vaccinated, you can go onto the Delta platform. We’ll accept any of the trusted credentials sources [and] feed it into your portfolio, so that as you arrive at the customs check-in, or the Border Patrol [U.S. Customs and Border Protection], you can see the green check mark on your QR code.
For Delta as an enterprise, not necessarily as an airline, but as one of the world’s largest companies, what technologies have been most meaningful to you and your team and your employees as you try to operate really efficiently and also bring your people closer together?
One of the most important investments we’ve made over the last few years has been our digital transformation into digital technologies, enabling us to be closer to our customers. We are now at a point where a full 50% of our customers book directly on delta.com. They don’t go off to the travel booking sites or any of that because they trust us. We can share with them the best information about their trip. And we build a relationship with a brand starting right with that digital technology. We have that same opportunity with our employees, as we serve customers, going through the journey.
I had the great fortune before the pandemic started of doing the keynote at CES [the Consumer Electronics Show], launching the vision of the future for travel and technology. And it was all about making travel easier, cutting through the hassle. How can you create an environment where when you land in a city, your bags have already been picked up and they’ll be at the hotel before you even get to your hotel room or wherever you’re traveling to. Or taking our delta.com site [or] the app itself and turning that into a digital concierge that we call our Delta Red Coats, so that you can actually get information and help and support wherever you want to go in the palm of your hands.
As a leader, what are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned? How have you grown as a leader in five years?
I think I’ve grown a lot. It’s an unusual job, as CEO. And as you mentioned, it’s a job that you don’t fully appreciate until you’re sitting in the seat. There are some roles [for which] you can train and train, but can’t appreciate until you’re actually physically in the seat, responsible for 75,000 people, a huge investor base, and a couple hundred million customers.
I’ve learned a lot about the power of transparency and vulnerability, particularly in this time when I didn’t have a lot of answers. [We] use tools such as video technology for keeping our employees posted, for letting them see me, and see the angst and the challenge—and some of the stress—but also an unrelenting commitment to getting to the end in a good way.