Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastain: ‘We Keep Climbing’

Bastian has seen it all, leading his team from the brink of bankruptcy to the top of their industry—but nothing fully prepared him for the disaster of the pandemic. “I have learned more in the last 18 months,” he says, “probably than the last 18 years.” His takeaways.

From labor shortages to supply chain snarls, worker safety issues to inflation, this is one of the most volatile, challenging times facing CEOs that anyone can remember. For Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Air Lines, the degree of difficulty is all that—and more. 

When Covid struck, Delta lost 95 percent of its revenues in 30 days, tossing the company—and industry—into the wilderness. It somehow survived. Government aid helped, for sure, as does the pent-up demand for travel. But while other traditionally high-performing airlines stalled out, with labor brawls and cascading scheduling failures, Delta avoided the worst of it under Bastian—knock wood—and in September announced adjusted Q3 profits of $1.2 billion (without any help from Uncle Sam), though the company may take a small loss on the full year. As for leading his people, here’s a telling metric: Delta quietly got 97 percent of its employees vaccinated—without imposing a mandate.

Ask Bastian, 64, how he’s done it, and how he’s leading his company back from the edge—and he’ll tell you that being the oldest of nine children, he learned young how to be a crisis manager. But no childhood bathroom squabble could prepare him for leading Delta Air Lines through all these years of challenge. As he recently told Corporate Competitor podcast host Don Yaeger, his decades-long love affair with Atlanta’s largest employer was built on the belief that organizations, even one as big and as far-flung as Delta, can only thrive when they are driven by their purpose over their profits. “The story of Delta Air Lines is the story of redemption, and redemption is a powerful story,” Bastian says. 

As CEOs everywhere get ready for 2022, we spoke to Bastian about the past year, about rallying people during a time of peril, keeping them going when it’s tough to keep going and discovering how learning to run a marathon in his 50s to help a 14-year-old girl named Grace changed his life—and his leadership—forever. 

Here’s the conversation, edited for length and clarity: 

I’m fascinated by CEOs who are able to manage themselves and manage major organizations through challenging periods of time and what gave them the foundation that makes them special. Growing up in Poughkeepsie, your parents ran a dental practice from their home while raising nine children. What lessons about leadership and management did you learn in that household?

It probably prepared me for the airline world well. There was always some crisis going on, who wasn’t going to get a shower or go to the bathroom. We had one and a half baths for the 12 of us, including my grandmother, who lived with us, in the house. I don’t want it to sound like we were underprivileged in any way. It was a wonderful house; it was a great family. We all learned to share a lot. We learned the importance of teamwork and how to get along, how to influence when you don’t necessarily have authority, which is a key life lesson. 

We all learned—I probably more than the rest of them—the importance of being a great role model. My parents drilled it into me time and time again. You’ve got eight little ones looking at you, and you’ve got to make sure that you’re always setting the right tone and temperament. That inadvertently kind of thrust me into a position of feeling somehow responsible for my own grades, behaviors and ambitions. 

Did you see in your parents the kind of thoughtful leaders, thoughtful givers that you wanted, ultimately, to be like?

My parents were wonderful role models for me—very, very strong Christian home. My dad, he ran a dental practice in the house. So on top of 12 people, there was also a dental practice of people coming and going at all times, day and night. My sister’s bedroom was right above the office, and every now and then somebody would jump on a bed or decide to wrestle on the floor or whatever, and there’d be a big boom, plaster would fall from the ceiling on his patients, and he wasn’t too happy. 

I lost my dad very early; he died when he was 52. My mom had much more influence, as a result of that. Unfortunately, we lost her last year. I was always amazed by my mom taking care of all of us. She was a dental hygienist, so she assisted him in the office. She was involved in the community, whether it was in the church, the nursing home down the street. She’d bring food every single week to people who didn’t have [enough] and was constantly baking and doing things for others. Her constant engagement in the community giving back was really remarkable.

You began running marathons in your 50s and promised your team of employees in New York that if your operation there became profitable, you would run the New York City Marathon. Tell me about the dare. How did you find yourself staring at the starting line of the New York City Marathon?

My best sport in high school was track. I wasn’t a long-distance runner. I didn’t like long distances. I was a sprinter, particularly high hurdles because I was sort of tall; and I was fast. The 120-yard high hurdle was my sport, but as long as it was less than a quarter of a mile, I was all in for it. Finishing my senior year, I was third in the county in the finals, went to the county championships. And I actually went to the state’s. The guy that beat me from the county was the state champion. In fact, he wound up the state record holder. It was pretty cool. 

Running was something I was good at, but as I got older, I didn’t really have the time to get involved as much in team sports and baseball and football. They dropped by the side, but I could always run to stay in shape. And even when I was young, I was awed by people that would run marathons. 

Sure enough, in my late 50s, I still had that itch. I said, “Well, if I don’t do it now, I’m definitely not going to do it.” We had our team in New York, and we were building out our facility at JFK. It was a big, ambitious undertaking for us. Biggest investment we’d ever made. Several billion dollars in building that new international terminal. 

The operation was still not at a point where it was sustainable. We were building it; we were making progress. And I told our people, “Before we get this facility built and we’re profitable, I will run the marathon.” It took several years to build. I was thinking, I have time, I have time, I have time. 

Eventually, it was built, and the team turned it around, and I had to run. So I said okay, and I started training. Early on in the training, I realized that I would find a reason not to do it if left to my own devices. You can get yourself injured; you can find all kinds of reasons why your body at 58 breaks down and you can’t run a marathon. 

I talked to a woman who runs a charity here in Atlanta for childhood cancer, the Rally Foundation—Dean Crowe, who’s a good friend. I’d spent a lot of time with that charity over the years, and I said that I would raise money for the run. I wound up raising about half a million dollars. That half a million dollars more than anything kept me motivated, focused and on track, and I did it. 

I ran it November of 2014. It was a cold day, it was a windy day; it was nasty. I was at the starting line, it looked like I was getting ready to go on a ski run. It was just cold, with 40-mile-an-hour winds—awful, cloudy, bitter cold. I did it in about five hours. 

So I got it out of my system, but I stayed involved with the charity. A few years later, there was a little girl who ultimately wound up losing her life. Her name was Grace. She had cancer, bone cancer, and she had just lost her leg. She was the same age as my youngest daughter. At that time she was probably 14, I think. She was the most positive human being. 

She knew she had little time to live. She had a diagnosis that there was no cure for. They had tried all the chemo and all the treatments. Osteogenic sarcoma—it’s just lethal. Swimming was her thing. Despite the fact that she lost her leg to cancer, she was winning races. She was like a fish in the water. 

Annually, in November of each year, there’s a charity function that auctions things off to raise money. And, if they raise a million dollars at this dinner, which is their big fundraising, that’s a good event. She spoke at the event. 

And she, she had grace. She held up her iPhone that she had just gotten as a gift from her parents. There are about 1,000 people in this ballroom. A 14-year-old girl with just the most confidence. She said, “You realize that there’s been more investment and more generations of this phone just in the last few years than there’s been in the research of childhood cancer in the last 40 years?” 

She was absolutely right. Unfortunately, our government doesn’t fund research for childhood cancers because adults have voices; kids don’t. Adults have influence, and the pharmaceutical companies want to bet on adults who have pocketbooks, and kids don’t have pocketbooks. 

That was so, so impactful on me. I said to Grace, “I’d like you to come visit me in my office and have lunch” because she was interested in Delta and about me, and she knew I’d run a marathon. I told her I would do it one more time, for her. 

She wound up dying a couple months later, before I ran the race. But I’d told her I’d raise a million dollars for this charity, for a cure for these kids. Wound up raising $2 million. Top five moment. Not necessarily a historic athletic achievement, but it was incredible. 

I’ve got lots of friends, and I called on all of them, I told them what their contribution to my $2 million race was going to be, and people showed up for me. It was powerful. I became very passionate about it. 

She lost her life a couple months later. There were 2,000 people in the church, standing room only for her. She went to a small school, but she touched so many people’s lives, she had confidence in her future as to where she was going, and her faith was powerful. They talk in the Bible about the faith of a child. She was a living embodiment of that for me.

In a commencement speech you gave at Georgia Tech, you talked about the importance of lifelong learning. What are you working to learn right now?

When I give that speech, I also tell kids that when you graduate, there’s a sense that you’ve accomplished something, which you have. But you really haven’t. You’re just starting your studies, right? And you shouldn’t feel that your learning stops on the day you graduate. It really just starts. I use myself as an example. The day I graduated from St. Bonaventure University, I had never set foot on an airplane, and I didn’t step foot on an airplane until I was 25 years old.

In 2020, Delta became the first airline to exhibit at the Consumer Electronics Show, where Bastian announced technology innovations that will transform the future of travel.

As a big family, we didn’t have a lot of means—the one trip a year was a station-wagon trip to Florida and back. So I let them know that if I had considered my learning at that point to guide my path, I certainly wouldn’t be in the position I’m in. 

I don’t fly planes. I’m not a pilot. I’m not a technologist, I can’t check people into reservations, I can’t fix a plane, I’m not a mechanic. So I’ve had to learn about what’s important to all those roles and those jobs, and how they all come together to deliver a great experience for customers. That’s learning in itself, just learning so many different skills and expertise from so many different fields. 

The pandemic has put it on steroids. Covid was the ultimate—no playbook existed, and we were at our highest high. When Covid hit, Delta was the most profitable, best-performing airline, not just in the country but in the world, ever. No airline had ever accomplished what we’d accomplished. 

Within 30 days, we were down to less than 5 percent of what we had, 5 percent of our revenues in 30 days with no understanding of what was going to happen. It was the most dramatic fall in modern history, in business anyway. Also, while we were seen as the leaders in the industry, as the champions in our own sort of way, Covid leveled all of that. It took all of our advantages away, and we had to start over again. 

What I’ve been most proud of about the team—and again, the learnings that come through it—is that we’ve emerged, we’re not through it yet, but we’re emerging on top with an even stronger brand, a stronger company, a stronger passion and purpose for where we’re going. That comes from the fact that we’ve had to learn. We had to listen each other, we had to rely on each other, we had to follow our instincts, and we had to keep very focused.

How do you get the team to look and say, we lost our advantages, we’re essentially starting from scratch? What do you do to help them look forward in that moment when you’re at 5 percent—the darkest day and have no idea what’s ahead?

You’re honest, and you let them know that you’ve got a lot more questions than answers, and you don’t have all the answers. That’s really hard for leaders to say.

Leaders are looked to to provide direction and guidance, and there’s a vulnerability and authenticity to letting people know that I’m just not sure where this is going, but having the confidence to know we’re going to figure it out. 

I’m a big fan of [author] Jim Collins, who’s a friend. I have worked with him in the past. He talks about Admiral [James] Stockdale surviving the Hanoi prison, the longest-serving officer in the prison. In Hanoi, it was just a tortured awful eight or nine years, however long Admiral Stockdale was in there. How do you survive that? So many people died; they couldn’t take it. Stockdale talked about, “I had confidence I was going to be rescued. I just didn’t know when or how, and I was going to continue to be open to figuring it out and seeing it through. Those who thought that we’d be out of this in six months, or we’d be out by Christmas, those are the people who died, right? They die of heartbreak.”

It’s the Stockdale Paradox. That steely-minded resolve is what’s gotten us through the pandemic here at Delta. Myself and the leadership team, knowing that we’re going to keep leaning on each other. 

I had set out the principles, right in the second week of March, that we were going to focus on protecting each other. We didn’t know how the business was going to come back, but we were going to do our very best to protect our people, our customers, their safety. We were going to protect our cash, we were going to be very mindful watching our cash, but also protect our future. We weren’t going to let this undermine our ability to have a future. And those were the guiding principles all throughout the pandemic. 

Where did the idea that purpose was going to be so central in your leadership style come from?

We’ve come through hard times here at Delta. We filed for bankruptcy 15 years ago. There was a takeover attempt, US Airways tried to take us over, and we prevailed. We’ve gone from crisis to crisis, the global financial crisis, merging with Northwest, 9/11—there’s just been a series of crises the last couple of decades. 

There’s a lot of opportunity to throw in the towel, to say, “This is just too hard, we can’t do this.” It’s the people of the company that we feel an obligation to ensure that they will be positioned to succeed. My job is to serve them—my job is to give them the tools, the training, the opportunity to win in the marketplace. I’m confident that if I do my job of putting them in a position to win, they’re going to do an amazing job serving customers. 

I became CEO six years ago, and we were already getting close to the top of the mountain—“keep climbing” is our other tagline. I called Jim Collins and said, “Jim, we keep climbing. Well, what happens when you get to the top of the mountain? You have to go down the mountain.” Or the alternative is, what’s the next mountain we’re going to go climb? Let’s go find another mountain. 

That’s how we came up with the anthem, as I call it, “No one better connects the world.” Because that crystallizes why we do what we do. And as I speak to so many of our people, it’s been so clear through the pandemic, clearer than ever, the purpose we have, the mission that we’re called to is so meaningful. 

The world literally cannot connect on video technology long term. The spirit needs to be together; we need to get people together for understanding and for joy and friendship and collaboration and creativity and fellowship and encouragement. And that’s what our people get to do. Everybody’s got their job, everybody has a role, everybody’s got an important role they play in the world, but we’re privileged to have that role. 

It puts me back 15 months ago. People were losing people, and we needed to keep pulling through. We really felt like we were on the frontline of the crisis. It affirmed the purpose of what we do more than ever, in the hardest of times.

How do you make sure you add people to your team who bring what you’re talking about—that discretionary effort—to work every day?

We’re a business that serves people. We fly planes, we fix planes, we take people on exotic trips. Fundamentally, we serve people, and we look for their heart of service and how they’ve evidenced it in their past—that they’re involved in their community in their churches, they’ve been involved in fellowship and leading teams forward. 

We’re not a team of individual contributors. We’re a team that has to not just evidence it but enjoy and have passion about serving people. We can teach the other stuff. How the technology works, how to serve people on airplanes or how to fix planes, we’ve got a lot of people who know all that stuff. Obviously, you need base skills to come into some of these jobs, but [we need to] discern more about the people we hire, including pilots. The people who are called to serve are people that are drawn to Delta. That’s our goal.

Our people, many of them spend 25-, 35-, 45-, 55-year careers with us. We have very little turnover, 2 percent on average. People love to work at this company. So the hiring decisions are really important. You can’t train for attitude, but you can train for aptitude and skill.

What kind of advice can you offer to other leaders about building teams from the individuals we may have on our rosters?

Why do you exist? Why does your company, why does your team, why was it created? What was the role to play, what’s your mission, what’s your goal, your sense of purpose? By having a shared purpose, you wind up needing to think bigger than yourself. 

Anyone who can fulfill their purpose on their own—they’re not very ambitious, and they’re not going to go very far. But everyone who can understand what it takes to generate something that’s of greater value than what they can do themselves and the roles each play—it’s that shared purpose and, for us, it’s that shared great customer experience. 

I know you spend 50 percent of your time out of the office. How do you make sure frontline teammates are aligned with you on this great purpose?

Well, one thing is I am very visible, our leadership team is very visible, out on the frontlines of the business. The beautiful thing about our service and our products, we get to experience it ourselves. We’re all customers; we all have our point of view. We can all see what it takes to deliver. A lot of it is about communicating and having an individualized relationship with our teams. Not just myself but our leaders, and one of the accomplishments and achievements I’m most proud of—and it’s taken a lot of work, and a lot of people have helped me with this—is that just about everybody in the company knows me. 

There are not a lot of companies where everybody feels like they know the CEO on a first-name basis. I’ve met many of our people—thousands, tens of thousands of them—over the course of my 20-plus years here. There’s not a flight I get on where I’m in the cockpit or the galley and someone doesn’t say something like, “I met you eight years ago, you were taking your daughter to such and such.” And sometimes I can’t remember. So one of the little tricks I learned is you never say, “Good to meet you.” It’s always, “Good to see you.”

We do a lot of gatherings, in big settings, thousands of people together, small settings, galleys. Communicate, communicate, communicate, and keep people with you because we’re on a journey together, and they all feel like they understand their part and their role. That’s visible leadership. 

The other thing we did that cements it is that when we went through bankruptcy, we made a decision. I was the architect of this, which I’m proud of. We told our people that when we succeed, and we were going to succeed, we would share the first fruits of those efforts with them. And we put in a plan that pays our employees 15 percent of our profits. Management doesn’t get any of that—it just all goes to our frontline employees. 

When I first started talking about it, we were losing money because we were in bankruptcy, and people didn’t think much of it. They kind of laughed a little bit: “Yeah, that’ll be a nice day.” But as it grew and grew and grew, we got up to February of 2020, and we paid our employees $1.6 billion. Paid it on Valentine’s Day. Every year, we’ve paid on Valentine’s Day. 

It represented about 18 percent of their pay. They never know how much it will be, and money isn’t the driver, but it is the thank you. It causes them to realize, now we have to do this as a team. We have to kind of keep pushing this because I want that check next year. 

It’s life-changing money. I’d ask people, “What did you do with your profit sharing money?” Well, a lot of people saved it, which is good, but a lot of people say: “I finished that addition on my house,” or “I was able to pay off that student debt,” or “I was able to have the wedding for my girl that I wanted to have.” Connecting that to the company, that sense of purpose as to why we do what we do, that’s the magic. That’s the chemistry that creates a very special environment to work.

We fought a takeover battle—we almost lost our company to US Airways back in 2006. When you ask me what drives my purpose and passion, it is because we’ve had a second chance. Redemption is powerful. That redemption story is a big part of my internal drive.

Many people have asked me how I’ve survived this last couple years. I tell people it’s not the end of the challenges, the pressure and decisions, the stress. It’s really, to me, how you think about it. I think about it as the honor of a lifetime to lead a company that I love, a company that’s so important. It’s the largest company in the state of Georgia, the largest employer in the city of Atlanta—a 95-year-old company with a great history that has never needed its leadership more than it needs it right now. 

For whatever reason, I’m sitting in the chair. I consider it a blessing, and an honor and a privilege, not a burden.

Over the last 30 years, longtime Associate Editor for Sports Illustrated and 11-time New York Times Best-Selling Author Don Yaeger has been blessed to interview the greatest winners of our generation. He has made a second career as a keynote speaker and executive coach, discerning habits of high performance to teach teams how to reach their full potential.