Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian says he still senses “nervousness and a little bit of paranoia” in Salt Lake City about whether its hub is truly here to stay.
“That exists from 10 to 15 years ago when Delta wasn’t very stable,” and merger negotiations included perhaps moving the hub to Phoenix — plus worry that Delta itself might not survive, he said. “There is still some residual skepticism or concern.”
But he assured Salt Lakers on Friday that Delta is now strong, and its hub here is vital. And plans for it include expanding international and domestic flights — including new nonstops to Asia.
In fact, “We've grown here almost 25 percent in the last three and a half years, which is the second largest airport growth that we've had among any of our major cities” worldwide, and he sees more coming, he said in an interview.
Bastian, who has led Delta since May 2016, was in town to address the Salt Lake Chamber’s Utah Economic Outlook & Policy Summit — and often visits here as a condominium owner in Deer Valley.
Delta is the world’s largest airline by revenue, and Salt Lake City International Airport is its fourth largest hub globally with 300 flights daily to 100 destinations — which Bastian said shows its importance to his airline.
He adds that proof of Delta’s commitment to Utah is the ongoing $3.6 billion reconstruction of the airport, with its first phase scheduled to open in late 2020. Much of it will be paid for over time by fees from Delta, which operates 73 percent of all departing flights here.
“The facility will be truly world class,” he said, adding it will triple the size of the airline’s Sky Club and significantly improve services and comfort at gates.
It also will add more and larger international gates. He let slip in comments to the Salt Lake Chamber that will likely lead to nonstop flights to Seoul, South Korea.
“I was discussing the possibilities, not making any announcement,” he said later in an interview. “But there’s no question that the new airport will create more international opportunity, and one of the things I’d like to be able to do is create an Asian route.”
He adds Delta attempted that once unsuccessfully with flights from Salt Lake City to Tokyo.
“The principal reason it did not work is that when people got to Tokyo, there were limited destinations” for connections. But Korean Air, a Delta partner, “offers 80 destinations throughout Asia on a nonstop basis out of Seoul.”
As another sign of commitment to Utah, he said Salt Lake City will be among the first cities to receive and use Delta’s new Airbus A220 — which holds 110 passengers, but will have the widest seats in the fleet with windows as large as on wide-body planes. It even has windows in the lavatory. It also uses 25 percent less fuel.
He notes the Trump administration attempted to place a 300 percent tariff on the Canadian-built planes, but Delta prevailed in legal battles against it. “So we’re proud of that. It is technology that needed to come to the market.”
But he said the ongoing partial federal government shutdown may delay deployment of those airplanes, because Federal Aviation Administration inspectors needed to certify them have been furloughed.
In other complications from the shutdown, he said Delta is losing $25 million a month mostly from cancellation of travel by government employees or contractors. He said he is sure it is still safe to fly during the shutdown. “Safety is mostly our responsibility as an airline anyway,” he said.
Delta now generally tops service and customer satisfaction rankings of airlines from numerous agencies, showing a turnaround from a decade ago when Bastian acknowledges “we weren’t very good.”
“We’ve always had great people … but they didn’t always have the tools to do a great job,” he said, adding the airline has invested heavily to provide that — and to focus on reliability.
For example, five years ago the airline had 5,000 cancellations during the year because of mechanical problems. Last year, it had only 55. “We decided we needed to cancel the cancellations,” he said.
“The only thing that separates Delta from other airlines is our people. This is a people business,” and he said the company needed to work to make them happy came before it could truly satisfy customers.
That includes giving Delta’s employees more than $1 billion annually over each of the past five years in profit sharing, or 15 percent of its profits. He said it will give out $1.3 billion on Valentine’s Day this year, including $50 million to workers who live in Utah.
While Bastian said Paris is his favorite destination, Salt Lake City comes just below that. In part he likes to go to Deer Valley in the summer to escape the heat and humidity of his home in Atlanta.
But he said the main reason he likes Utah is “the people have a great spirit here. They take a lot of pride in their community. They’re a welcoming group, and it’s a very pleasant place to come. Every time I come here, I just feel that I’m glad I’m back.”