Flying High

GaBiz Editor in Chief checks in with Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian about the industry’s post-pandemic recovery, the company’s investments in futuristic technology, and the next generation of talent.
Photo by Fernando Decillis

Delta Air Lines is Georgia’s largest private sector employer, with more than 10,000 employees in the state (and nearly 100,000 worldwide). Ed Bastian, who has served as president since 2010 and CEO since 2016, leads them all. When Covid rocked the industry, Bastian’s leadership helped Delta thrive amidst the challenges. The ups and downs of that journey are detailed in a new feature-length documentary, The Steepest Climb: How Delta Air Lines Navigated the Global Pandemic (see the trailer here), available starting this month on all Delta flights. Now, demand for travel is back in full swing, and the company is up to the task—from sustainability goals to new technology. Here, the dynamic leader shares his insights. Be sure to check out “The Conversation,” with Bastian in the GaBiz Q2 2023 print edition, out later this month. 

The international recovery is in full swing. What does that mean for Delta and the airline industry at large?
The international business has surpassed even domestic travel demand. During the pandemic, within the U.S., people could still get around a little, but they weren’t leaving the country. When you think of close to three years of people wanting to see family, take care of their business, enjoy new experiences or new opportunities . . . That’s driven a huge surge of demand for international travel, initially to Europe, where we’ll have well more than 100 percent of the demand that we had in 2019 this summer alone. We’ll be closer to 125 percent. We’re seeing the same phenomena in Asia and South America. 

Delta recently announced an investment with Joby Aviation, an air taxi [imagine an electric-powered helicopter-airplane hybrid]. What will that mean for your customers? 
It will create new options to get to the airport, with some speed and improved experience. Our initial plans are to have Joby provide vertical lift. These are small four- to six-seat vertical takeoffs, all electric powered, in keeping with our push towards a more sustainable aviation journey. [Customers can ride] from someplace closer to home, where they can hopefully clear security and fly directly into the Delta Sky Club. It’s obviously going to be a premium experience at first. It saves an enormous amount of time, and it’s going to be a fun way for people to travel. I’m hoping it will launch sometime in 2025. 

Delta Tech Ops recently opened a new repair shop for Pratt & Whitney engines. What does this mean for business?
It’s exciting. In the last five years, we have become the launch partners on three of the newest engine technologies in the world. One is Pratt & Whitney’s Geared Turbofan, one is the Rolls Royce Trent engine design, and one is General Electric’s LEAP Engine. Those engines will power the world’s aviation flights for decades to come. We have purchased aircraft from Boeing and Airbus featuring that engine technology. As part of the deals we made with those companies, we secured the right to be an MRO [to perform maintenance, repair, and overhaul] on those engines. With the Pratt & Whitney Geared Turbofan, we expect, over the next 20 years, to do over 5,000 engine builds for other airlines, not just Delta. We’re taking advantage of all the great engine, maintenance, and mechanical skills we have within our workforce and applying it to third parties because people know Delta around the world as being a high-quality, reliable provider. We get paid for that. As one of the exclusive providers of that technology throughout the Americas, that means many more jobs, right here, for the state of Georgia and our company. The site we opened earlier this year is going to produce somewhere between 300 to 400 engines a year, which is a large, large facility. It’s going to generate billions of dollars in revenue for Delta and billions of dollars of investment into this local economy. 

Why is the Delta Propel program, including with Middle Georgia State University, so valuable?
We give students who are already in certain aviation-related schools a chance to have mentorship through Delta, beyond going through the training and education with the school itself. We have 17 universities we’ve worked with around the country. They get unique interning and apprentice opportunities, with mentoring to learn what it takes. They get on the inside track and get inside the four walls of the Delta cabin and cockpit. 

In addition to that, we’ve added additional opportunities for our employees who want to become pilots, who have been out trying to accumulate hours, to accelerate and help their investment, whether it’s mechanics, flight attendants, or airport workers. You’d be surprised by the number of flight attendants who say, “I want to be a pilot someday.” If they’ve been working on their own, they don’t really have a framework for somebody to give them some formalized coaching and support and mentorship.

All these programs are designed to create new, nontraditional pathways into what is truly an incredible profession, leveraging the skills people have, as compared to the pedigree they may carry. We’re changing the face of aviation. Inside the cockpit is one of the least diverse sectors in probably the entire U.S. job force. [Pilots are often the product of] the military, with years of service, years of experience, and hundreds of thousands of dollars for some people to invest in. It’s 90-plus percent white male-dominated. We need females. We need African Americans. We need everybody to have the opportunity. And this is one of the ways we’re going to pull people up and give them that bridge in. 

Who do you look up to? Do you have any mentors?
I’m very blessed. There’s no way you get to where you are in the world without people giving you good advice and looking out for you. Recently, I had the honor of being inducted into the Junior Achievement Business Hall of Fame. Three of the most important mentors for me in this community [sat with me at that dinner]. There’s Ambassador Andrew Young and his wife, Carolyn. I had Shirley Franklin, who was the mayor of Atlanta from 2002 to 2021 and joined our board. And Frank Blake, who is our current board chair, and has been essentially my boss for the last eight years. They all entered my life at different junctures over the 25 years I’ve been in Atlanta. To have those three people sitting with me as I received that award was very cool.  

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