We are pleased to continue a new series where Scheller College of Business undergraduate students interview notable Scheller College alumni, CEOs, and prominent C-level executives, tapping into their business expertise and more.
In part-two of the series, Travis King, a fifth-year Business Administration student with a concentration in Operations/Supply Chain Management, interviewed Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Air Lines. King has co-oped with Delta for the past three years and is currently part of its Hub Communications team, where he helps support over 6,5000 frontline agents and executive leadership team members through communications and engagement events.
Travis sat down with Bastian to discuss his vision of leadership, sustainability, and air travel of the future.
Q: What does ethical leadership look like to you?
A: My thoughts on ethical leadership pretty much echo what’s in our ‘Rules of the Road,’ which are our guiding principles and values that have been around since Mr. Woolman (Collett Everman Woolman was one of four founders of Delta Air Lines. Delta recognizes him as the principal founder.) Ethical leadership is taking care of our employees, which in turn allows them to take the best possible care of our customers. Mr. Woolman always said to “put ourselves on the other side of the counter,” and that’s what our 80,000 employees try and do every day. I know I’ve said it over and over again, but it’s really about taking care of our people.
Q: Delta’s revenue premium is a key indicator that customers are pleased with Delta’s performance and product. What is the company doing to make sure this premium is sustainable? Is it sustainable?
A: We’ve seen our revenue premium rise year-over-year for the past several years. It’s at over 10% now versus our competition, and shows that customers really value Delta. They prefer our brand, our service, and our reliability – we had 245 cancel-free days last year, and over 330 days without a single maintenance-related cancellation. This operational excellence drives both loyalty as well as our net promoter scores, which in turn drive our revenue premium. We’re going to turn into a commodity if we can’t keep generating this premium, and our people understand that when our customers pay more to fly with us, it’s not only a realization of the quality of service they provide, but also what funds their profit sharing. I think it definitely is sustainable, and we’re working on continuously improving each day to keep it that way.
Q: Could you talk a bit about Delta’s sustainability efforts?
A: A few years ago, we made the promise to cap our carbon footprint and to further reduce it by 1 – 2% per year. Our ultimate goal is reducing it 50% in 25 years. Though we’ve increased the number of aircraft in our fleet, our daily departure count is actually relatively flat. We’ve accomplished this while increasing our revenues by 10%. I think this is a great statement about being environmentally savvy and efficient. We’ve also rolled out a carbon footprint calculator on Delta.com that allows customers to calculate the exact carbon footprint of their trip, as well as buy carbon offsets that help plant trees to minimize this footprint. We’re also looking into things like removing as much plastic as we can to help minimize waste as well as continuing to expand our in-flight recycling program. We’ve managed to build 10 Habitat for Humanity homes so far from the proceeds from our recycling program alone.
Q: What are your thoughts on the corporate America taking public positions on political issues?
A: I think companies need to be very careful that they aren’t political instruments. We serve 200 million customers of every political, economic, and social background each year, and we want everyone to be happy when they’re traveling with Delta. We certainly need to be careful where we tread. I think the prime example of this is the well-publicized conflict we had with the NRA this past spring. The challenge is when and how do you speak up? I think that when something happens that goes against what you stand for and also impacts your business, you’re obligated to speak up. However, obviously sometimes taking a stand can have consequences, which were also well-publicized. It’s a delicate balance, but it comes back to knowing what you stand for and where your core values are.
Q: What are your thoughts on technology changing the way we actual travel? How will Delta respond to things like the Hyperloop or supersonic aircraft?
A: What we’re seeing in aircraft now is better mission capability, allowing them to fly farther than ever before. That’s where we see real value, and I think that will be immune to any sort of effect the Hyperloop or similar technology may cause. In terms of supersonic aircraft, it’s unfortunate one doesn’t exist today. However, it’s important to note that air travel has become a lifestyle now. The Concorde was expensive to operate and to fly on; supersonic travel has a high premium. Right now, people aren’t willing to pay that premium. It’s simple economics.
Ed Bastian is CEO of Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, where he leads a team of more than 80,000 employees around the world. Since his appointment as top executive in 2016, he has expanded the airline’s global presence through innovative partnerships and a unique managerial style.
Bastian joined Delta in 1998 as Vice President, Finance and Controller, and was promoted to Senior Vice President in 2000. He left Delta in 2004 and became Senior Vice President and CFO of Acuity Brands. He returned to Delta shortly after to serve as CFO, and in 2007 was appointed as President of Delta.
Prior to joining Delta, Bastian held senior finance positions at Frito-Lay International and Pepsi-Cola International. He started his career with PricewaterhouseCoopers where he became an audit partner in its New York practice.
In September, Scheller College of Business also hosted Bastian for a conversation with Dean Maryam Alavi to discuss leadership, strategy, and Delta Air Lines' innovative culture.