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Delta CEO Ed Bastian talks:
Delta has undertaken a flurry of activity this year in
building global alliances and joint business ventures, including significant
investments in several of its international partners. Those moves earned Delta
CEO Ed Bastian a spot on BTN's 2017 25 Most Influential list, and Bastian spoke
with transportation editor Michael B. Baker about Delta's progress on that
front, as well as its recent record-setting performance in BTN's
annual Airline Survey.
BTN: What's the
update on your alliance strategy?
Europe, we're well established with Air France-KLM and Virgin Atlantic, and
we're working hard to try to harmonize the two JVs to a single JV. That will be
one of the things we will accomplish in 2018. We closed the transaction and now
are 10 percent owners of the Air France-KLM group and are inside the company
and their boardroom, which is a big part of what we're doing here: trying to
build foundational relationships for customers. We're not doing it as airline
investors. We're doing it to have the greatest impact and influence for our
customers as they travel internationally. We found that while commercial
relationships or contracts are a great start, the real value, the real
alignment and the real investment decisions need to be occurring as owners with
similar outcomes. We have a good year planned for 2018 in Europe, and that
ownership alignment across those entities will help us make the seams continue
to disappear for customers.
In Latin America, with Aeromexico, we closed that in 2017,
as well. We feel great about the relationship and what we're building for the
future. It's a unique type of JV. It's the narrowbody, and we share the same
continent. It's very different than any of our international [JVs]. It's more
like a U.S. domestic relationship than a classic international relationship. We
currently have more than 100 people we share between our two entities, people
working in Mexico City or their people working here in Atlanta.
In Brazil, with Gol, we've seen a nice turn in the market,
as well as the economy. 2018 will be hopefully a year of strong growth. It's a
market with great potential, and we have a wonderful partner. Gol is doing very
well in Brazil. They are the market leaders in the domestic market, and I
anticipate we'll have some development there in the new year to speak to at the
In Asia, we're making a lot of changes on our network,
bringing our latest technology, the Airbus A350, to Asia, which is an important
step in that region. We have a renewed partnership with Korean, where we have
gotten [U.S. Department of Transportation] consent, and we're working with the
Korean authorities to receive the same support… in 2018. It will bring our two companies
very close together, and it will be the largest transpac JV and relationship in
BTN: Are there
still some holes in the network you're looking to fill?
are always a couple of things to work out. You'll be hearing news soon on a
couple smaller things [editor's note: two days after this interview, Delta
announced a joint
business agreement with WestJet], but we have our main partnerships and
territories covered at this point. We'd like to have a better long-term
solution for India. We started working much closer together with Jet [Airways],
and our partners with Air France-KLM have announced
a closer relationship, which will help us coming across the transatlantic,
Atlantic also has moved
to your reservations system. Will we see more movement like that from your
there will be. We're continuing to improve the technology platform here at
Delta. Virgin Atlantic—the implementation went well, but it was the first stage
and there's a lot more to come, which we're working closely with them to
develop. Based on the success of that, we'll have other partners interested, as
BTN: In BTN's
recent Airline Survey, travel buyers rated Delta as the top airline for
corporate travel managers for a record seventh year in a row. To what do you
attribute that performance?
Bastian: The No.
1 reason is our people. When reading the article, I took great pride in seeing
the comments from customers about the quality of our sales team, the
relationships and our people having our customers' backs and finding a way to
get to "yes" no matter how difficult things tend to be. It's a
powerful team, and we're going to continue to invest in them and provide
support. It's also the people in the business. The sales folks can't do the job
they do without running the most reliable airline for business travelers in the
world. And the quality of that service, whether it's in the operations or
flight teams or maintenance crew. We're investing heavily in continuing to
improve the experience for corporate customers, whether it's the new Premium Select
[premium economy cabin] we've added to our international product offerings or
technology, which we continue to see as a huge differentiator going forward. I
don't think we're where we need to be yet, but with the money that we're
investing in digital and personalization and the relationship with corporate
travelers at Delta, it's a big opportunity for the future.
BTN: Has this
year been as strong operationally as past years?
Bastian: [As of
Dec. 4, we were in the midst of 49] days in a row now where we haven't had a
cancellation on the mainline. We went the entire month of November without a
cancellation. That's never been done by anyone on any scale, much less our
scale. It's not just the mainline. We're up to Day  where we haven't had a
cancellation across our entire brand, including all the regional brands. We had
to overcome some challenges with the hurricanes, but the team responded in
great Delta fashion. [Editor's note: Winter weather in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast U.S. led Delta to cancel about 375 flights on Dec. 9.]
BTN: What's your
outlook for 2018, and what will Delta's priorities be in the new year?
will be our strongest traffic and passenger count in our history, which we're
quite proud of. It's something we're seeing across all our regions, not just in
the U.S. On transatlantic routes, we're very impressed with how things have rebounded
and recovered. The priorities for 2018 might sound a little boring, but it's
doing it the same but even better. The operational performance will be a
hallmark of ours, and we have continued investments in that, [including] enhancements
to our baggage services.
There's a lot of work in the airport department in 2018. We
have many investments going on across our airports: LaGuardia, Los Angeles,
Seattle, Salt Lake City and here in Atlanta. Many of our big hubs in our
network are undergoing a significant amount of spend, and we're building an
airport experience of the future for our customers. We want to utilize not just
technology that we know but what we see on the horizon, biometrics being a big
part of that to enable better screening and more effective and efficient queues
and wait times, shortening those through the airport. We're investing in better
technology at gates to enhance the boarding process.
We have a lot of work going on in the international space in
2018. The other thing is our visual applications. One of the most important
projects we have for the company moving forward is the development of what we
call a single view of the customer. We have a treasure trove of information
about our customers. Unfortunately, it sits across many databases and
applications, and we can't utilize them to the benefit of being able to service
our customers in the most effective way at all times. We have big infrastructure
and technology architecture work going on to unify our data sources and be able
to give our agents and flight attendants and the people handling the sales
agreements an account on a personal level so we understand our travelers, their
history, our experience with them, what their expectations are and how we can
more closely and better personalize their relationship with Delta.
We have a treasure trove of information about our customers. Unfortunately, it sits across many databases and applications, and we can't utilize them to the benefit of being able to service our customers in the most effective way at all times."
Delta's distribution strategy going forward, especially with your partner Air
a global distribution system fee next year?
strategy is to ensure that we have the most robust and vibrant distribution
environment that's going to support the needs of all of our travel partners. We
want transparency, and we want to enhance the quality and the access of our
products to provide it to as many passengers as possible, and we want to make
certain that we have the ability for our customers to meet their travel needs
to our individual preferences. I'm not speaking to what's going on in Europe,
but our goal is to make our fare and product information as widely available as
possible while making certain our customers have the best options and best
knowledge of our products. Our products are becoming increasingly segmented,
with branded fares and other product attributes that require a deeper knowledge
by our customers of the options available to them, and we support platforms
that provide a high-quality awareness and transparency and availability of
distribution of those product attributes so our customers can make the most
intelligent choices they can.
BTN: Delta has
been at the forefront in assertions
that the Gulf carriers are in violation of Open Skies agreements. Do you
see any action from the government on that front?
had more than 300 sitting members of Congress who have written and fully
requested an investigation of the subsidies and the allegations. It's no secret
that it's hard to get the majority of any of our representatives, either in the
House or the Senate, on the same page; this is a bipartisan issue, and it
speaks loudly that it's one of the single biggest violations of U.S. trade
agreements that's occurring. It's an issue that's complex, so obviously it's
taking time, and we have a number of folks in Washington. I spend a lot of time
myself, as I know [American Airlines CEO Doug Parker and United CEO Oscar
Munoz] have from their end, on the topic, and I'm optimistic that we're going
to hear news from Washington of some breakthroughs on this.
mentioned elsewhere that you expect inflight Wi-Fi will be free sometime down
the road. Are we anywhere near that?
Bastian: We need
to improve the quality of it before we can talk about making it free. We're
investing in satellite technology. Gogo is actively turning on more and more 2Ku
satellite technology on our planes, and we're working hard on the certification
process and the implementation. The majority of our mainline fleet will be
satellite based in the first half of 2018. There are still quality issues that
we're working aggressively with Gogo to potentially enable our customers
onboard to have the same bandwidth and speed and service level in the sky as on
the ground, and once we get there, then we have to discuss the affordability.
Where in the world do people pay for Wi-Fi any longer? That's got to go away,
as well, so we'll be working on improving the price point as well as we move
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