Fortune

SOAR WHILE YOU’RE AHEAD

Delta bounced back from bankruptcy to become the most reliable and profitable of the Big Three U.S. airlines. The challenge for CEO Ed Bastian: widening Delta’s lead before an economic slowdown drags it back down to earth.

IT’S SHOWTIME at Salt Lake City’s Grand America Hotel. As the bouncy groove of “Feel It Still” by the band Portugal. The Man pulsates through the cavernous ballroom, some 200 Delta Air Lines employees wait their turn for a selfie with CEO Ed Bastian. Sporting a slim-tailored suit, black designer tennis shoes, and tortoise-shell glasses, the 6-foot-2, silver-haired Bastian poses with an arm thrown over the shoulder of a burly baggage handler, then trades grins with a duo of flight attendants clad in newly issued uniforms whose deep purple hue their designer, Zac Posen, dubs “Passport Plum.” The fans relay their cell phones in a constant stream to a Bastian aide who clicks away so that everybody gets a souvenir.

Bastian reputedly never leaves a selfie session until the procession is finished, and today, the parade lasts over an hour. “We meet celebrities all the time, and I’m never starstruck,” says flight attendant Danielle Strickland, 31. “But this was the first time I got a picture with Ed Bastian, and I was starstruck.”

The occasion is a “Velvet” (for “velvet rope”), a conclave Bastian created in the dark days when Delta was mired in bankruptcy. He now holds Velvets once a month in one of the airline’s hub cities. Bastian headlines each extravaganza with an early morning pep talk, followed by the photo op. Then he embarks on meet-and-greets with local employees that proceed at the frenzied pace of a political campaign. This Tuesday in September is no exception, with the CEO delivering speeches to reservation agents at a regional call center and then to ground workers at Salt Lake City International Airport; touring the construction site of Delta’s new $3.5 billion terminal there; and strolling into the pilots’ break room to chat up blasé-looking captains. Bastian—trailed by a video cameraman—finds time at each stop to answer questions, fodder for spots on the “Ask Ed Anything” internal video site that channels his message to employees.

To veteran airline-watchers, Bastian’s knack for courting employees calls to mind two past industry leaders famous for rallying the troops: former Continental CEO Gordon Bethune and Southwest cofounder Herb Kelleher. But while those chieftains were folksy, flamboyant, and even profane, Bastian’s style is different. If Bethune and Kelleher were brass bands, Bastian’s a smooth jazz ensemble. Through the headlong rush, he comes off as coolly relaxed. His talks, delivered sans notes, flow in paragraphs uninterrupted by the usual “you knows” and “I means.”

Most of all, Bastian hits notes that get big reactions. At the Salt Lake City Velvet, he tugged at veteran workers’ heartstrings: “Look where we’ve come from! Through bankruptcy, the Northwest merger, fuel going up and down. We didn’t have much, but we had each other!” Minutes later, it was all about pay. “We’ll deliver over $1 billion to you in profit sharing on Valentine’s Day for the fifth year in a row.” Next up, the Big Vision: “We’re king of the U.S., the undisputed national champion,” he declared. “But our future is global. The world is the Olympics.”

Rah-rah hyperbole sounds

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