Delta CEO Ed Bastian on responding to a crisis

Delta's CEO tells Sean Czarnecki that transparency and accepting blame helped the company recover quickly after a global outage.

About three months after you were appointed CEO in May, Delta suffered a global outage that cancelled 2,000 flights. What are your takeaways?
The lesson we tried to deploy was to get out as quickly as we could and in front of what was happening in real time.

In a challenge and crisis like that, we didn’t have all the facts. It took time to develop the facts and what was happening.

It was important customers knew we were telling them all we knew when we knew it. We were being transparent, and we weren’t trying to blame someone else. They had to know we owned the issue and had all the focus and resources to solve the problem as quickly as possible. And that’s about all they can expect from you.

I’m a big believer you don’t try to explain away what went wrong. And I think our team did an awesome job.

Some PR pros disapproved of the way Delta shared information, when the airline incorrectly said Georgia Power was to blame for the outage. How do you stay transparent and timely with the public while thoroughly vetting all information that you share?
We were in the early hours. There wasn’t any power to the facility. It wasn’t clear initially what caused the power to go. And that’s why there was some confusion as to the source of the outage.

However, we relatively quickly discovered it was a faulty piece of equipment on the Delta side that caused the outage. And we acknowledged that day one: It wasn’t a Georgia Power issue ¾ it was a Delta issue.

The recovery time was influenced mostly by our inability to have the necessary capacity to handle the volume of changes to flight itineraries. We had four times the amount of volume of change and information coming through our technology channels than we could deal with effectively.

Also, the outage occurred on a busy summer morning when our load factors were in excess of 90%, and we simply didn’t have the equipment in place to handle those cancellations. It took several days for the recovery to come full circle.

I think our team did a great job in recovering it. And certainly based on the customer feedback we’ve received, which I’ve seen, I’d say our customers acknowledge that.

Airlines reported record profits this past year because of cheap fuel prices. Any idea where you will invest that?
We’ve invested an awful lot in our product. We’re investing a lot in our airports, new technologies, customer-facing technologies, and our people. We used the rewards for higher wages and profit-sharing payoffs. Those were the main sources of investment.

You staked your reputation on "canceling cancellations." Considering the 2,000 cancellations during the summer outage, how do you regain that reputation? As customer complaints continue to rise, do you deserve that tagline?
We prove it through our actions. The reality is, we have bounced back completely since the outage. We’re on a streak of 19 days in a row without a cancellation. Net promoter score, which is our daily core customer satisfaction measure, certainly dropped during the outage. But our score is now higher than where we were before the outage.

Tell me about the Delta News Hub. How did that come about? What’s its future?
We are a company that is active with initiatives and programs in a fast-moving, dynamic industry. The news hub came about as much for internal purposes as external. It lets our people know how the business is evolving, what our new priorities or initiatives are, and what development is affecting Delta.

We thought we would take that idea and broaden its appeal to our customers, our employees, and the media to get our stories out to a broad constituency.

How do you use your position to benefit the company?
I communicate with our employees. It’s important our employees have the information they need to do their job in a great manner every day, because we’re a consumer-facing organization, and our employees are in front of customers all day. Our customers have a lot of questions and our employees have to be equipped.

I also communicate a lot with customers about what we’re doing in the business; we’re seeking to grow, we’re looking to change strategies, and we’re looking to emphasize product features.

Consolidation has produced a "tangled computer system." How do you act transparently about an industry and IT system that is inherently dense and difficult to understand?
I don’t subscribe to that. I can only speak for Delta, not the industry. At Delta, we are investing heavily in modernizing our architecture and improving our infrastructure. The outage had nothing to do with the age of our equipment. We had some poor wiring in place we learned from.

But we have a lot of innovation going on, the best reliability in the industry, the best reliability in Delta’s history, and some of the highest customer satisfaction scores in our history. You can’t produce that level of operation or customer engagement without well-functioning technology. It’s an evolution and we continue to get better.

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