Delta Air Lines CEO
Ed Bastian was being pressed by the hosts of CNBC’s “Squawk Box.” After a video went viral of a woman reclining her seat and a man retaliating by punching it, the world needed to know: what is proper reclining etiquette?
His first answer? Dodgey at best. He pivoted to boasting about Delta’s higher quality seating amenities. The hardline reporters in the Squawk Box wouldn’t let him off the hook that easy; the people had to know the truth!
Finally, Ed relented. He claims, “I think customers have the right to recline. We’ve been testing reduced recline … But I think that the proper thing to do is if you’re going to recline into somebody, that you ask if it’s OK first.”
He followed this statement with an industry bombshell, adding, “I never say anything myself, though.”
Do you feel the Earth shaking? Is your mouth trembling? Trust me when I say, it’s not just you…it IS scorching HOT in here!
Okay, alright, maybe “Recline Gate” isn’t quite up there with President Nixon’s Watergate or even Tom Brady’s Deflategate for that matter. Let’s be honest, this ranks (if it ranks at all) near the bottom of the ever-increasing list of scandals we find ways to cram “gate” at the end of. Chalk this case up to “The Internet” going about its usual comic debauchery.
Ed Bastian, in reality, is the kind of CEO board members would be too aloof to dream up on their best day – he’s that good. Role the tape.
He grew up with his eight siblings in Poughkeepsie, NY, where his father ran a dental practice out of their family’s home. Thankfully, Dad had one of the greatest dental assistants ever known to the history of dentistry – Ed’s Mom.
Being the oldest sibling, Ed was able to fill his memory bank with endless days of quality family time. He remembers their version of “vacations,” sharing, “we went on one family trip a year. My Dad would get us all in the station wagon. There were no seatbelts, there were no car seats; there were nine of us [kids], my mom, my dad, and my grandmother in a station wagon. All piled in, we were allowed to put whatever we could fit in our pillowcase and brought it for two weeks.”
Later in life he’d come to the conclusion, “that was our family trip so I must have figured somewhere in my unconsciousness: there has to be a better way to travel.”
Our Lady of Lourdes High Scool
The man who didn’t step on a plane for the first time until he was 25 years old attended Our Lady of Lourdes High School (Private, Roman Catholic). He says his first job involved extreme manual labor, explaining, “It was on a summer work crew for the county highway department — just cleaning roads, picking up trash and paving roads.”
Bastian continues, “The next three summers after that, I worked at a rock quarry where they made cement. It was hot, it was nasty, but it gave me the incentive to say, ‘I’m never going to do this for a living.'”
In addition to his hardships faced at work, returning home was no break either, he remembers, “my grandmother lived with us. And it wasn’t that big of a house. You had to learn the dynamics of teamwork at a young age. But as soon as I graduated high school, I was like, ‘I’m not going back.'”
Motivated by those rough and tumble days spent laboring away in the sweltering summer heat, Ed hit the books; managing to get accepted to St. Bonaventure University.
Earning his Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration, Ed Bastian graduated from St. Bonaventure University in 1979.
In 2012 it was announced he and his wife, Anna, would donate $250,000 to the Universities business school. “The professional, caring, and success-driven environment at St. Bonaventure University helped shape me into the man I am today,” he said in a statement. “the Franciscan values that I learned at St. Bonaventure have served me well in my career. Anna and I are very pleased to be able to give back to the school and help support this important initiative.”
His bright attitude combined with an undergraduate education proved enough for Ed to launch his career with PWC straight out of college.
Having begun as an intern, Ed Bastian earned a permanent accounting role within PWC. He elaborates on his early career experience, telling the New York Times, “At the time, I was an accountant because I was pretty good at math and analytical skills, and I could get a job. But looking back on it, accounting teaches you the language of business.”
He continues, “as an accountant you have different clients. I had an advertising agency and a bunch of different industries. The chance to kind of work inside the company, to see their books, gave me a lot of confidence at a very young age.”
By 32 years old he made partner, his mother told the local Poughkeepsie Journal, “He has worked hard and diligently throughout his whole career…He was one of the youngest partners ever at Price Waterhouse.”
“When you’re young, you want to be friends with people. But leadership is not a popularity contest. It’s about making some tough decisions, trying to give counsel and trying to make the best decisions for your team,” divulges Ed.
A Change in Course for Ed Bastian
Having reached the pinnacle of his profession at such a young age, Bastian explained to David Rubenstein in an interview posted on YouTube how he began to consider what would be next for his career. “I said [to myself], if I’m in a company where my pinnacle of success is 32, I need to go someplace to learn more – I need to continue to develop…the partners at that time thought I was crazy to leave but I decided I wanted to try something different.”
Ultimately, he told the NYT, “as an accountant, you’re not making the decision — you’re not bringing business ideas and being accountable for the results. I wanted to own the result.”
“I got a call from a friend that said ‘Pepsi was hiring’ and he introduced me to a person at Frito-Lay down in Texas,” says Bastian. “I moved down to Dallas and I don’t have a graduate degree, I just went to an undergraduate at St. Bonaventure, I’ve always considered to this day my training at PepsiCo – my seven years spent their – as my postgraduate work.”
Further detailing his time with the company, Ed discloses, “I worked at Frito-Lay International, which was a conglomeration of all these snack companies around the world. Each had its own snacks, its own flavors and brands, and Frito was on an acquisition binge. We would acquire brands in the U.K. or in the Netherlands or in China or in Russia.”
A heavy dose of travel was injected into Bastian’s life, he tells the story, “we would get on the Frito-Lay plane on a Monday and visit three, four, five countries around the world, get back Friday evening in Dallas for the weekend, and the next Monday we’d hit another set of countries. I was on the road 90 percent of the time.”
Constantly being away from home wreaked havoc in his personal life – it ended his marriage. Cheerfully finding the silver lining, he says, “It was hard…it was difficult. But from a business standpoint, it was incredible.”
Crush on the Aviation Industry
Ed wasn’t planning on leaving his position this time, however, when a friend called telling him about a job opening at Delta, he began to consider his growing infatuation with the aviation industry.
“I was an active business traveler, I was traveling probably 80% of my time – a lot internationally – so I already thought I knew how the airlines worked and I knew all the things that needed to be fixed about the airlines to actually make them better,” says Bastian. Upon arriving at the company and getting to peel back the curtain, himself, he realized there was much more to the industry than he initially thought.
Notice how he disregards conventional wisdom, always following his gut despite possible risk to his career.
Delta Air Lines
Ed joined Delta in 1998 as Vice President – Finance and Controller and was promoted to Senior Vice President in 2000. The next year, the airline industry would be absolutely decimated.
“Yeah. 9/11 happened and changed all of our worlds. I was in Atlanta and watched the second plane hit on TV. Being in the airline business, your first thought is the safety of your crew and your team. There was immediately a worldwide ground stop on air travel, and we had to put all our planes down immediately,” he recounts.
Bastian continues, “In Atlanta, it was eerie. Our offices are right across from the airfield, and there was just the sound of silence for several days. It was like a pall that sat over the airport, the office, everything. We saw international business drop to almost nothing overnight. We had to let 15,000 people go in two weeks because we didn’t have any cash coming in. It took us 10 years as a company to recover from that.”
Ed Bastian Leaves the Company
Choosing to leave Delta in 2004 due to a belief that the company had lost its way in a very meaningful manner, Ed moved on to another nearby Atlanta-based company.
Acting as the Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of Acuity, Bastian confesses, “after about six weeks I was really bored. You get the jet fuel racing through your veins at the airline industry and it’s just tough…it’s tough to compare it to other industries.”
Keeping in contact with the folks at Delta, within six months of leaving, Ed decided to return to the company as Chief Financial Officer and help lead the restructuring effort.
Return to Delta Air Lines
In describing the motivations behind his return, Bastian makes clear, “I wanted to rescue the company. I wanted to run to the fire. I wound up taking a 50 percent pay cut to come back to Delta, which was insane. But I had a passion for this, and I believed we could do something great one day, because I loved the people of the company.”
“When I returned, the first thing I asked was to see the cash balance, and they showed me the projection is that we were going to be out of cash within six weeks. Zero cash. Then our credit card providers started withholding payments to us. People could smell blood in the water,” he added.
Still reeling on the heels of 9/11 and officially citing rising fuel prices as the primary contributor, Delta Air Lines filed for bankruptcy in 2005.
Looking to take advantage of the fledgling airline, U.S. Airways attempted a hostile takeover of Delta in the form of a buyout. Ed Bastian explains, “we were bankrupt, we weren’t worth anything at the time and U.S. Air came in and offered $10 Billion to buy Delta; for a company that’s not worth anything! Everybody assumed ‘that’s gonna be a forgone conclusion.'”
He continues, touting that rather, “the people of the company stood, said ‘that’s not gonna happen, we have a better idea, we have a better business plan,’ and we were able to convince the creditors through the restructuring process to stay with Delta.”
Now that the financial elements of the companies crisis were momentarily abated, executive leadership turned to repairing their relationship with employees at the ground level. A rift had grown as a result of layoffs, pay cuts, and reduced benefits.
Looking Out For Employees
“You’ve got to make certain that your employees know that they are the absolute best asset you have. When you go through difficult times, employees can feel like they’re a number, they’re a cost, they’re a means to an end. But no, they are the end themselves,” said Bastian.
Delta decided to begin holding meetings in an abandoned Macy’s location – Bastian discloses that he’s not even sure if they paid to rent the building as they had no money, they may well have been considered squatters. They took this baron room, added a few couches, some snacks, and did as much as they could to make it the least professional “business-like” environment possible; meaning, especially no powerpoints either. Humble and wholesome was the atmosphere.
In these intimate gatherings, the leadership openly conversed with employees regarding what decisions led to the airline being in such a horrible position, how they planned on fixing the problems, and what vision they had for the future. Most importantly, the whole company got on the same page and for once, rather than one set of people telling another what to do, everybody felt a shared responsibility to do their part in Delta’s revival.
Quite imperatively, the executive team also put their money where their mouth was, chiming into the conversation, “If this thing turns around, we want you to be paid first. So we said 15 percent of the profits will go to you. Not the management team, it goes to you, our employees.”
Bastian notes in a 2019 NYT interview, “a few years after that, we had a $100 million profit-sharing payout to employees. Now, for five years running, we’ve paid over $1 billion a year to our employees in profit-sharing.”
Delta Air Lines Chief Executive
Since being named Delta’s CEO in May 2016, Ed Bastion has expanded Delta’s leading position as the world’s most reliable airline while growing its global footprint and enhancing the customer experience in the air and on the ground. During his tenure as CEO, Delta has become the world’s most awarded airline, having been named the Wall Street Journal’s top U.S. airline; Fortune’s most admired airline worldwide; the most on-time global airline by FlightGlobal; a Glassdoor Employee’s Choice company and more.
Delta has returned to sustained profitability, regaining its investment-grade credit rating with all three major ratings agencies and paying out more than $1 billion in profit-sharing to employees every year over the past four years. In 2018, Fortune magazine named Ed among “The World’s 50 Greatest Leaders,” and in 2019, he was elected to the membership of the Council on Foreign Relations.
If you enjoyed this article on the life story of Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian, be sure to check out our biography of American Airlines CEO Doug Parker.