Skip to Content

Burning cash, accepting turbulence

ed_bastian

A candid interview from the industry hardest hit by the pandemic: travel. Delta saw seat bookings fall to less than 5% of normal, had 40,000 employees go on unpaid leave, and raised $14 billion in funding, to withstand a cash burn that still stands at $30 million a day. To rebuild traveler trust, Delta CEO Ed Bastian has enacted a slew of new safety standards.

“We all got to pick our businesses up and decide what parts survive, what parts are eliminated, and what parts we can accelerate.”

— Ed Bastian
About the guest:
ed_bastian

Ed Bastian is the chief executive officer of Delta Air Lines. During his tenure as CEO, Delta has become the world’s most awarded airline.

About the host:
bob_safian

Bob Safian is the host of Masters of Scale: Rapid Response, and the editor-at-large for Masters of Scale. He’s the founder of The Flux Group, a media, insights, and strategic advisory firm. He was previously editor-in-chief of Fast Company, where he won the National Magazine Award for Magazine of the Year in 2014.

Transcript of Masters of Scale: Burning cash, accepting turbulence

ED BASTIAN: Every week seems like a month, and every month seems like a year. 

No airline, no matter how many seats they put o a plane, is making money.

Well, it can be paralyzing.

I encourage everyone to move quickly to accept the fact that the world is different – and it’s going to stay different. We all got to pick our businesses up and decide what parts survive, what part needs to be modified, what part we need to eliminate, and what parts we can accelerate.

We’ve been through many crises in our industry. They don’t build character. They define character.

And this is a time, it defines your brand, it defines your relationship with your people, and relationship with your customers, and what you stand for. And I believe investing in safety and health, including the space on board our cabins, is an investment in the health of our people and the health of our customers. And it will pay dividends, many dividends, for years to come.

BOB SAFIAN: That’s Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Airlines.

The coronavirus pandemic has hammered the airline business. At one point, Delta was losing $100 million a day.  With aggressive cost cutting and flight suspensions, that figure has improved, but Delta still loses money on every flight, burning $30 million a day.

I’m Bob Safian, former editor of Fast Company, founder of the Flux group and host of Masters of Scale Rapid Response.

I wanted to talk to Ed because, despite that cold, hard reality, he’s continued to stay optimistic – and to motivate his company and his employees with the promise of a better tomorrow. It’s taken sharp decisions and consistent, forthright communication.  

When social unrest hit in Delta’s hometown of Atlanta, Ed leaned again into candor.  “We were reeling,” he says. “It’s hit us hard.” It’s been another blow on a road to recovery that he calls a marathon.

He’s taking it one step at a time. 

[THEME MUSIC]

SAFIAN: I’m Bob Safian. I’m here with Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Airlines. No industry has felt the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic more than the airline business. Air travel has fallen, with plane cabins feared as infection zones. Under Ed’s leadership Delta’s cut flights, had 40,000 employees go on unpaid leave, raised $14 billion in funding – all to withstand a cash burn that still stands at about $30 million dollars a day. A scenario that makes even the post 9/11 crisis seems simple. 

Meanwhile, Delta’s headquarters in Atlanta put the company in proximity to protests in the street against racism and police violence punctuated by the Atlanta police shooting of Rayshard Brooks, whose name has been added along with George Floyd, and many others. It’s been intense, with difficult decisions still to come. Ed is joining us today from his office in Atlanta as I ask my questions from my home in New York. Ed, thanks for joining us.

BASTIAN: Thanks Bob. Great to be with you.

SAFIAN: As I go through that litany of the 2020 events and challenges, it sounds more like a decade than just a few months. Does it feel that way?

BASTIAN: It does feel that way. Every week seems like a month, and every month seems like a year. It’s a difficult time for us all, not just dealing with the pandemic, but then the obvious economic impact that’s attached to the pandemic; and then the social unrest – and rightfully so – that’s a undoubtedly been spurred on as a result of both of those factors as well, on top of the real tragic killings we’ve witnessed here. I think it’s one of those years that it’s gonna define us. It’s going to define our nation, our society, our company, our individual selves as to how we respond to it.

SAFIAN: When we got to May, a lot of businesses felt like, okay, we kind of got our arms around what this lockdown is going to be like. And then we have George Floyd’s death and the social upheaval that comes in the wake of it. Do you remember where you were when you first heard about George Floyd’s death or Rayshard Brooks’?

BASTIAN: With Rayshard Brooks, in fact, I had been with the mayor here in Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms, on the phone, on a committee I chair for her called the Atlanta Committee for Progress. And  we were certainly reeling from the protest following the George Floyd incident. And then a few hours later, the shooting of Rayshard occurred. 

All the days, as you say, seem to run together. There doesn’t seem to be any moment one above the next day you can really pinpoint because there’s been so much trauma over this last month, particularly, but absolutely, it’s hit us hard.

SAFIAN: After George Floyd’s death, you issued a statement that the Delta family will “use whatever means we have to move the world toward a better or more just tomorrow.” How are you bringing that to life?

BASTIAN: Well, as corporate CEOs, we are action oriented. We’re prone to want to make decisions and want to check it off the list and take care of it and move on to the next thing. That’s in a lot of our DNAs, and this is an issue that’s just the opposite. This is an issue that requires a lot of understanding, a lot of education, a lot of listening, a lot of reflection and a lot of action, but we can’t act independent of those other steps as well. 

What we’re doing here at Delta is we’re spending a lot of time understanding the role we play here, seeing the world through our Black colleagues’ lens, our Black brothers and sisters. Almost half of our family members at Delta are Black and brown skinned colleagues. We’re all one family here, and we all have to be responsible. We have to be accountable. We have to really understand what’s underneath the pain and what we can do – because we are all contributors to the pain – and what steps we can do to make this a better place.

SAFIAN: Some businesses have quickly announced multimillion-dollar financial commitments around diversity or social justice. That’s not something that you’ve announced at this point. Do you think that’s not the right way to approach it?

BASTIAN: Well, I think every company has to approach it in the way that’s right for them. At Delta, we’ve contributed meaningful dollars and investments into our community across the board here. We announced quite a number of years ago 1% of the profits go back into the communities that we work in and serve, which last year was over $60 million, went right back into Atlanta on the West side and development and education and work with the Atlanta public school systems, and a lot of work we’re doing to support the historical Black colleges that are located here in town. We’re fortunate that we have a very rich heritage with the Black community. So that’s something that we do.

Of course, the financial duress that the airline’s under has precluded our ability to make a new commitment, but we’re not stopping with the commitments that we’ve already got in place. But I do think this is not about writing a check. It helps, no question about it, but it’s really very much about actions and the accountability that we have to our Black colleagues to make certain that it’s not just their lives matter – matter is just the baseline. Their lives are essential to what we do every single day; what we can do to lift them up – that’s what they need.

SAFIAN: Alexis Ohanian resigned from the board at Reddit to try to increase the diversity on that board. Have you had discussions or thoughts about how you adjust your board to have broader representation?

BASTIAN: Today, we have two Black members, of a 12-member board. Bill Easter and Kathy Waller. We are absolutely increasing the diversity. We had up until recently, a third black director as part of the cohort, Shirley Franklin, who was the former mayor of Atlanta. She hit the retirement age a couple of years ago. So we do have a strong history of having Black representation, not just on the board, but in the leadership of the company – but we need to do more.

SAFIAN: At this moment, where the pandemic is hitting your business so hard, billions of dollars in losses, flying’s never felt more dangerous for would-be travelers, except maybe right after 9/11. I know you’ve rolled out a slew of protocols, Delta Care standard: electrostatic fogging after every flight, wiping down surfaces, air recirculated every two to six minutes with HEPA filters, masks required by passengers, middle seats left open, new boarding procedures, hand sanitizers, wipes, spacing markers in airports. Is it enough? Do you feel like it’s working?

BASTIAN: It absolutely is working. I was on a flight this morning and travel is picking up. We bottomed out in mid April with less than 5% of our normal traffic continuing to fly. Today, we’re starting to approach somewhere between 15% to 20% of our traffic. What our customers tell us, Bob, when they’re on the planes, is that all of the steps we’re taking absolutely make a huge difference. Our Net Promoter Scores, which is the principle of customer satisfaction measure that we utilize, is meaningfully up over anything we’ve seen. We always do well, but we’re up another 10 to 15 points relative to our prior year levels. The customers are particularly noticing all the work we’re doing around clean and safe.

Capping load factors at 60% on our planes is huge. What it does, it guarantees that you will have a seat next to you open. No matter what seat you are on the plane, you will have the seat next to you open. And as we start to approach the 60% load factor mark on planes, that’s our signal to add more flights and add bigger planes in. Starting at the end of this weekend, we’re adding a thousand more flights a day to the schedule, almost doubling our domestic schedule. Now over 50% of our seats are full on our planes. So it is working. All the steps we’re taking require a lot of thought. 

The filtration systems on board our planes, for example, are the HEPA filters, the highest-quality filter you can find in the world. It’s used in hospital operating rooms and clean-room environments. You couple the filtration system with the fact that we are recirculating – it’s actually every two to four minutes, not six – onboard the planes and half of that air is coming fresh from outside. So it’s not just taking the existing air and cleaning it, replacing 50% of the air every two to four minutes of the air you’re breathing is completely fresh. 

The question I would ask to your listeners, if you believe flying has never been a scarier, I think is the word you used, well, how are employees doing with respect to their health onboard the planes – our flight attendants, our pilots, our airport agents, the crews? We have 50,000 people, 50 of our 90,000 employees work in public settings serving customers in that environment. You would imagine that their infection rate or infectivity rate would be pretty high living in that environment if it’s as dangerous and scary as people fear.

And the reality is just the opposite, is that the infectivity rate of our employees that work in our planes and our airports is actually five times lower than the national averages. Since the quality of the steps we’re taking, the quality of the air that’s onboard the planes has a huge difference, and we’re not seeing it. Really then, those stats are starting May 1, once we had rolled out all the changes from that protocol, and we’ve been measuring it for almost two months now. And it’s a huge break from any of the national or city or state averages, anywhere you want to look. And one of the reasons is the quality of the air, the air filtration.

So I tasked our team, our technical operations team, to go measure the air quality onboard the flights and see what we found. And we’ve been traveling with sensors on a number of flights and actually throughout the entire travel journey. And what we have found is indeed the quality of the air that you breathe on board our planes is somewhere between 7 to 10 times cleaner than a baseline measure against say, the grocery store you shopped in yesterday, or a retail establishment, or restaurant, an office building, your home. And even meaningfully cleaner than just the airport you were in or the jet bridge that you boarded from.

So all of these steps matter, and we’ve been giving everyone all the information, but we also have to be sensitive to the environment. People are being told not to move, not to travel, to be cautious. So we don’t want to come out with a statement that’s in conflict with any health authorities. And for people that are vulnerable, absolutely should not be traveling. I completely agree with that. But for people who are looking for adventure, who want to get away, who want to go visit family, or if there’s business to be done, candidly, I’ll tell you, there’s not a safer time to be on an airplane than right now.

SAFIAN: You mentioned you trace and track your employees. Do you trace or track passengers who subsequently get ill? 

BASTIAN: Well, if we have any learnings or knowledge that there was a passenger who ultimately turned out to be infected and we learn about it, we go back absolutely and retrace. We get information from the authorities. We have no known transmissions on Delta of the virus to anyone. None – zero – since the pandemic has occurred. 

SAFIAN: It sounds like it’s as much about confidence as it is about safety.

BASTIAN: Oh, it’s completely about confidence. Absolutely. Safety is in the DNA of this company. It’s the product that we sell every single day. There’s not a safer form of transportation in the world than the U.S. airline industry. 

We have a culture that’s prone to safety. It’s prone to caution. It’s prone to stop if there’s any question of something not being safe, stop the operation. And so we have a culture to be able to address this. And the safety now needs to translate in form of the physical safety of the customer, their health, the hygiene of the environment. We’ve put together a program with the Mayo Clinic as well as Quest Labs to test all of our employees, the full 90,000 compliment employees.

There’s a lot of fear, fear of the unknown. People don’t know whether they’ve been exposed, whether they have it. I’ve been tested. I’m going to get tested again tomorrow, both active as well as for the antibodies. We do this because we’re very, very safety-oriented in taking good care of our people. And the more we do that, the more I think the customer confidence returns to travel.

SAFIAN: You mentioned that you’ve capped the load factor, leaving a seat free next to everyone, which allows you only to fill your planes by 60%. For customers, they may say, “Oh, that’s what I’m comfortable with going forward.” For you as a business, that’s not really sustainable over the long term is it?

BASTIAN: Well, we’re going to keep them capped until customers are confident sitting in the middle seat, obviously. And that’s going to take some time. I don’t know how long it’ll take. Obviously you can’t make profits at 60% load factors. We know that. No airline, no matter how many seats they put on a plane, is making money in this environment because the overall demand is so low. Our goal is to bring demand back and bring confidence back, and capping the load factor is one of the things that we do. And I’d rather maximize confidence and bring more flying back at a lower load factor than trying to maximize load factors and destroy confidence. If that makes sense.

And so that’s our strategy. And fortunately, we’ve got the financial capability to weather the storm through the winter. It’s going to be a cold winter, no question. As confidence continues to grow, but slowly. As business traffic continues to grow. It’s going to take some time. But we will get there. 

I’ve told our team many times, when you’re in a crisis, the question you get is is that what builds character? And I said, “No. Crises, and we’ve been through many crises in our industry, they don’t build character. They define character.” And this is a time it defines your brand. It defines your relationship with your people and relationship with your customers and what you stand for. And I believe investing in the safety and the health, including the space on board our cabins, is an investment in the health of our people and the health of our customers. And it will pay dividends, many dividends, for years to come.

SAFIAN: You’ve used this expression that the company’s moved from a protect phase to a resilience phase. Can you explain what that means?

BASTIAN: Yeah. So in the aftermath of the pandemic, when it hit us, we moved quickly into protecting. Protecting our people, their health, protecting our customers as a result. Protecting our cash, our liquidity, to make certain that we’ve got the cash to ride through this really, really difficult period of low demand. But also protecting our ability to respond to the future. We’ve pushed pause on a lot of activities here, but we haven’t stopped and killed those activities, because we believe once the pandemic is solved there’s going to be a future where we want to return and actually use this time to accelerate into the future.

We’re building the new LaGuardia airport. We’re accelerating, using the time while people are not in the airport to move quicker through projects – or at LAX or a number of our big airport rebuilds. We’ve got 40,000 of our employees who are out on unpaid leave. They’ve done that voluntarily. We’ve asked for volunteers and almost half our people have stepped aside. It’s helping us preserve and protect cash.

And we’re now into a phase where we’re starting to see the recovery build. And as part of the recovery, the word that comes to mind is less about continuing to protect and lock everything down, but to create resilience. Resilience around the brand, resilience around our safety, our health, our balance sheet. Because this is going to change us. There’s going to be elements of society that are going to be forever marked by the pandemic. We’re not going to take our health as a given as much as in the past. Our environment as a whole is not going to be taken as for granted as we now see blue skies and realize that the environment matters to us and it matters to our overall well-being. So we’re still protecting, of course. Protecting our people through the pandemic, but we’re moving more into a phase of resilience and that’s going to be key to the recovery.

SAFIAN: You mentioned looking to the future. How will the future of travel look different for Delta, for airlines overall?

BASTIAN: Well, two to three years from now I think we’re going to be a smaller industry. There will be a smaller number of planes in the sky. I think some of that is going to be driven by airlines just not making it. The financial wherewithal – this is very, very difficult. There’s been a number of airlines that have gone bankrupt internationally and actually in not flying, probably won’t make it through.

You’re going to see business travel change. Business travel is a big part of our revenue base. And certainly it’s the biggest part of our profitability. And technology and Zoom calls and video conferencing is going to change the volume of business travel. I think the quality of business travel is going to improve. I think a road warrior who maybe took 25 trips a year may take 15 or 20. 

I do think there’s going to be a renewed focus on the cleanliness standards, Delta Clean, as we’ve called it. That’s not going to change. Yes, we will get back eventually to full loads on our planes, but the cleanliness of the planes, the electrostatic fogging, the sanitization efforts we’ve made are here to stay. And we’ve already organized the division around that step.

[AD BREAK]

SAFIAN: It must be a difficult mindset shift for you and even for the whole organization when growth was such a central part, and you were so successful at it, to now sort of conceive a future that will be smaller and have less of that kind of opportunity. 

BASTIAN: Yeah. It’s a 180, no question about it, Bob. And we’ve got to be careful about growth because we don’t want to grow ahead of consumer confidence. Particularly now when we’re seeing the infection spread to the south and some of the issues we’re seeing in Texas and Florida and Arizona. 

We don’t want to get too aggressive as we’re building back, but there was a level of that growth in hindsight that wasn’t productive for businesses, it wasn’t productive for travelers, it was inefficient. Those inefficiencies need to get out, and I think we’re going to all see our work-life balance, productivity is going to be one of the key themes coming through this.

So if 20% of business travel disappears because it was unproductive travel, that’s good. We shouldn’t have a business model that’s predicated on an unpredictable or an ineffective source, because all that does is create volatility in the future. And the next time a crisis comes of any nature, that’s the stuff that goes away, well, I’d rather get it over with and let’s right size the business now to deal with that.

SAFIAN: There’s so much uncertainty in all this, and a lot of businesses are struggling to navigate. Do you have advice for other business leaders who are similarly finding themselves balancing what they used to do with a future that is unclear?

BASTIAN: Yeah. Well, it can be paralyzing. The stages of grief as we talk about it, kind of moving from the anger to acceptance. And I encourage everyone to move quickly to accept the fact that the world is different and it’s going to stay different and it’s not going to go back. I don’t think it’s going to be, by the way, a worse world, I think it’s going to be a better world, I really do believe that. I’m optimistic that the world we create out of this is going to be a healthier, stronger, more resilient world – but we need to move quickly in making the types of changes and not think this is something that has been thrust upon us, but something that we are all truly in this together and we’ve all got to get out of this together. And we all got to pick our businesses up and decide what parts survive, what part needs to be modified, what part we need to eliminate, and also, by the way, what parts we can accelerate.

I mentioned earlier, Delta, we’re going to accelerate airport construction, we’re going to cut years off of the airports because the airports are so crowded and so jammed it’s really hard to build LaGuardia while you’re operating it with no room to spare. We can cut meaningful time off that build. We’re going to accelerate our advance into fuel efficient planes. Any plane like our MD80s, MD90s, 777s that are older in our fleet, they’re subscale, they don’t have all the customer amenities to it, they’re never coming back. So we’ve already moved forward into our future and pulled five years worth of fleet efficiency forward into this environment.

Digital technologies are going to become much more key. And while the volumes are down, it’s allowing us to plow ahead and push out development and push out some of the new technologies in a quicker manner than we would’ve ever been able to. And, Bob, there’s a lot of activities, speaking of Delta, that we’ve had to put pause on. We’re going to be very conscious about what’s activities we decide to pick back up and some that we never pick up again and some that is going to say, “Well, that’s not something we’re interested in doing.”

One thing that we are going to pick up and accelerate through this is wifi. I’ve talked a lot that we need to provide better quality wifi experience on board our planes for our people and we also need to make it for free. Well, this is the time you make change, while demand is down and you can modify the planes, you can improve the quality of the systems. We’re doing just that. So there’s a lot in there that you can look to forward your development because I want to make sure that we’re relatively stronger coming out than we went in, relative to our competitors, relative to the marketplace.

SAFIAN: Your communication with your customers has also been at a much higher cadence than it was before this, do you think that’s something that will persist?

BASTIAN: Yes, it will. Right now things are changing so much. It does seem like every week we’re making some type of modification to improve the safety of the journey. And the recent discussion in the last few weeks is about masks wearing and enforcing masks and making certain people wear the mask to protect each other, not just to protect them themselves. I’ve been, by the way, communicating even more within our own employees, every single week I’m doing virtual town walls. This week I’ll do two of them.

There’s so much unknown and there’s fear that sits into the unknown. And we got to communicate and understand, we need to hear people, we need to recognize that fear and then explain. I told people that communicating is even more important when you don’t have the answers then when you do have the answers. When you have the answers, it’s easy. When you have a message you want to deliver, it’s easy. When you don’t know and you’re willing to put yourself out there and be vulnerable to your people and let them know that you don’t know, but that they’re going to be in this with you, you actually form a much stronger bond. People want to hear what people are doing about the situation and what they hope to learn and what everyone can do to make a difference. And that’s what my communications, hopefully, have been targeted towards.

SAFIAN: That’s fascinatingly counterintuitive, right? That the more confident or sure you are about what it is you want to say, the less often you have to say it; but the less sure you are, the more often you have to repeatedly say that you’re not sure.

SAFIAN: Exactly, exactly. And there’s an authenticity to it and there’s an honesty to it. And I think a lot of leaders there’s a natural inclination to want to shy away when you don’t have the answers, to wait until you can say something, and we’ve leaned hard against that.

SAFIAN: You mentioned earlier that you flew earlier today, you’ve been doing some flying – probably not as much as you’ve done in the past – but I’ve seen you post some selfies with your mask on. Are there any memorable trips, encounters with passengers or team members that you’ve been traveling through that you’d want to share?

BASTIAN: First of all, wearing the mask is quite memorable. And so a lot of people want selfies, historically, but now I tell them, “There’s a new brand of selfie with a mask on. So that’s a collector’s item. Hopefully it’s not going to stay around forever, so get it while you can.” So a lot of our crew members at Delta, as well as our customers, want selfies too, as a result. It’s been fun. 

But the thing that stands out for me as I’ve traveled that’s been most memorable is the customers that are traveling today, particularly, a month or two ago, were customers that really needed to travel. They needed to get to a sick family member, or they were a member of the medical community working on the front lines of COVID, or there with a personal reason for travel, an essential reason. And they so appreciated the fact that we maintained our air service in this nation to facilitate them being able to do that.

And I’ve heard from many people, both in person as well as notes that I’ve received, that, “Thank you, Delta. I know it’s tough. I know you’d probably rather not keep those flights going because you’re losing money on every flight that you fly, but keeping the airways open is really important to me and I would not have been able to be with my loved one.” And those are very heartfelt and very impactful to me. And we talk about ourself as an essential service in this economy and in this country, it sounds so trite: “Essential,” what is essential? 

Well, essential means you’re making a difference. And in our employees too, that are out putting their own lives at risk early on before we really understood all the safety features we needed to deploy, being willing to serve customers and being out in the front lines, they’re heroes just like our medical workers and our grocery store clerks, and people working in keeping our nation moving. And they’ve all felt that same sense of pride and honor to be able to serve.

SAFIAN: I can imagine the mood of your crew members has sort of shifted from a time where planes were mostly empty to now people are coming back.

BASTIAN: There’s optimism. I traveled through the entire last three months and I can tell you, traveling in the month of April was incredibly depressing and while I think everyone fantasizes about flying on a private jet and maybe having a big plane with seven people on board and how luxurious that might feel, it was depressing.

And it wasn’t just depressing because I’m the CEO of the airline, I think it was depressing to the customers. It’s just a stark reminder of how the world has shut down and looking at each other with some fear, not wanting to be too close to anyone. This is an invisible threat and people not sure if they’re carriers. So, the mood is decidedly better, but it’s still a long ways to go, a long ways to go.

SAFIAN: Yeah. How much do you worry about virus resurgence?

BASTIAN: Oh, we do. And as we’ve seen here in the South, it’s not really a resurgence, it never went away. We see the virus growing in our home markets, which we knew it would grow as the economy opened, as the cities and the states opened up, but in a few markets it’s growing at an alarming rate and we need to be very, very careful.

So, I don’t think we’re there yet in terms of the resurgence, I think we’re still in the first wave of it and Labor Day is going to be a really important marker for a lot of reasons. 

We’re in a very sensitive period of the journey here. We’re going to get better as we go through the fall, but it’s going to still be a difficult winter.

SAFIAN: You’re a global business. Are there insights or contexts that that footprint provides? 

BASTIAN: You see in a lot of countries, certainly in Asia and very much so in continental Europe, they were able to do a better job of crushing the curve and taking the virus down to really low levels. And as a result of that, their reopenings are going better than what the reopenings we’ve seen in our country. We have to learn from that. I think as it relates to travel, one of the big questions right now is what’s the state of international travel? Will the EU allow Americans to come in to the EU with such a large level of persistent infection that’s continuing to run through the country? I think it might be doubtful.

They locked their people down and they’re going to be very careful. You see that going on in Asia, particularly Korea, we have a big operation in Seoul and Korean Air is one of our partners. We own a stake in them. The South Koreans have done a very, very good job. The technology, contact tracing, testing, all the tools to be really clear as to when those next surges come, what you do to move faster and to contact people and to surveil. And that’s one of the reasons we’re surveilling our entire company and getting the testing and understanding everybody’s risk to the disease.

SAFIAN: Is there a question that you ask yourself each day as you’re trying to get through this? Is there some way you focus yourself on, okay, what’s the most important thing for me to be looking at? 

BASTIAN: Well, the first question I ask myself every day is what can I do to take good care of my people that day? What can I be doing more of? What can I do to keep their morale high, to keep their spirits strong? We don’t know what the fall brings. How can we protect jobs? How can we protect their families, their livelihood, their information flow? 

We don’t have a chief medical officer at Delta. It will be a position we’ll have in the future. No question, we’ll fill that. But I’ve jokingly referred to myself as the chief medical officer in the company for the very reason. I feel like I need to go out and get the information to protect our people. I’ve invested a lot of my personal time in relationships and keeping Delta on the forefront of knowledge and of access to tools to keep people safe. That’s what I think about, Bob, is our people.

SAFIAN: You must have moments where this just feels overwhelming. What do you do in those moments – or do you just pretend you don’t have them?

SAFIAN: I try to pretend that I don’t have them, I guess. I’ve been working out a lot, I’m a Peloton junkie. I’ve had more time to get on my Peloton. And so I’m able to get into my exercise and rhythm and taking care of myself, keeps my mind clean. But I really do believe there’s a mental attitude, there’s a strength.

I ran the marathon a couple of times. And my first marathon I ran, I was 58 years old. Why in the world, you’re 58 years old and wanting to run a marathon? And I couldn’t quite answer it myself either. Raised a lot of money for charity, which was good, but there had to be a deeper reason. And what I told people later was I knew I was going to be promoted to be CEO of Delta. And I knew the job was going to be mentally taxing. And there was an instinctive feel that if I could figure out how to run a marathon – because it’s not the physical, it’s the mental challenge of getting through a marathon and pushing against the pain and the monotony of running step after step for 26 miles and the training to get there – it would prepare me well for whatever is next to come in my career.

And this feels like a marathon. This time we’re in, this pandemic, it is a marathon. And we have to stay very focused in the today, in the steps we’re taking now, and not worry too far about mile 10 or mile 20. They are going to come, we’re going to get there, but we got to get through the day first. And I tell everybody every day, we’re one day closer to the solutions and to that tomorrow that we all look forward to. We’re getting closer. We’re not getting further behind.

SAFIAN: Well, thank you. I’m going to use that to keep my feet moving. And I thank you for taking the time with us and sharing all this. I really appreciate it.

BASTIAN: I enjoyed it, Bob. I appreciate doing it.

Masters of Scale’s mission is to democratize entrepreneurship. Launched in 2017 as a weekly podcast featuring Reid Hoffman, we’re now two weekly podcasts — Masters of Scale with Reid Hoffman, and Masters of Scale: Rapid Response, hosted by Bob Safian — as well as an award-winning daily learning app, a best-selling book, virtual and live events, and more, serving a global community of founders, funders, and leaders looking to innovate at scale.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter