Meet the man responsible for Delta’s on-time performance

Sep 11, 2019

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Last month, the TPG team took a trip down to Atlanta for a reader event at the Delta Flight Museum. Believe us when we say this place is an AvGeek haven. Located at Delta Air Lines’ headquarters, it has retired airplanes from the Delta fleet, from a historic DC-3 to a Boeing 747-400, plus views of planes taking off and landing at the nearby ATL airport. Inside, the museum served as a place for points and miles enthusiasts to hang out and get to know some of the TPG staff in Delta’s historic Hangar 2 — home to the The Spirit of Delta, the airline’s first 767.

As part of this exclusive event, Brian Kelly, The Points Guy, recorded a live episode of Talking Points with Gil West, the senior executive Vice President and COO of Delta, in front of an audience of more than 200 people. West is responsible for Delta’s worldwide operations including pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, airport and cargo workers, which means you can thank him for Delta’s impressive on time performance.

West talks through his responsibilities and how he helps maintain the company culture among more than 85,000 employees. He also explains Delta’s commitment to the Airbus A220, and the decision to not add the 737 Max to the fleet. You’ll hear about Delta’s IT investments to avoid future computer-system meltdowns, as well as West’s thoughts on future travel trends and the role of biometrics.

(Featured photo by Darren Murph / The Points Guy)

Full Transcript:

Brian Kelly: Hey everyone. I’m Brian Kelly, The Points Guy, and welcome to a very special episode of Talking Points. You know, Talking Points is TPG’s flagship podcast series where I host conversations with big thinkers, disruptors and executives in and around the travel industry. Most of the time we record from our headquarters in New York City, but this time we’ve recorded live from the incredible Delta Flight Museum. We held a reader event for the first time in Atlanta. I know, I know, it took a while, but it was fun. Trust me. The turnout was awesome. We had about 250 readers show up and we raised over $10,000 for Rainbow Railroad. We gathered in one of their original hangers built in the ’40s and sat right underneath the starboard wing of the Spirit of Delta, a Boeing 767 that the employees of Delta actually purchased. Boy, is she a beauty. The flight museum shares some amazing stories around commercial aviation and Delta’s history, so if you’re in Atlanta or even have a long layover, it’s just a five-minute quick ride from the terminal. Aviation geeks will love the model airplane room.

Brian Kelly: Joining me on stage is a person responsible for all of Delta’s worldwide operations, including, you know, pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, airport and cargo workers — over 70,000 employees. He’s been at Delta for over a decade, and with him at the helm, Delta has run the most reliable operation of any big U.S. airline, a pretty impressive record. We talked a lot about how Delta is different from a culture perspective.

Gil West: We don’t index on the success or the performance … We’re all obsessed with how do we just get better and better and better.

Brian Kelly: And Delta’s decision behind the A220, and their luck maybe in not adding the 737 Max to its fleet.

Gil West: Did we buy the Max or the 321 Neo’s? These are always tough decisions. We do tend to look at it holistically, though. It’s not just a “what’s the cost piece of the equation” for us.

Brian Kelly: And now, here’s senior executive vice president and chief operating officer for Delta airlines, Gil West.

Brian Kelly: Gil’s role at Delta, you know, he’s been with the airline for over a decade now, so he’s got a lot of really interesting feedback on the industry. We’re not going to dive deep into SkyMiles tonight. I know we’re all points fanatics …

Gil West: Thank God.

Brian Kelly: Delta actually won the best loyalty program and a bunch of other awards at our first ever TPG awards. So congratulations on that. And Delta also for the last seven months has had the best on-time performance of the major four U.S. airlines. So congratulations. That’s no easy feat.

Brian Kelly: So we’re going to start off a little bit easy tonight with a little quick rapid fire. So Gil, what is your favorite Delta jet to fly and why?

Gil West: Oh wow. If our CFO was up here, he would say the MD-80s, because they’re all paid for. But I would say, I would say the A350, you know, it is our, it’s…

Audience member (shouting): Long live the 88!

Gil West: Yeah, long live the 88. There you go. So, I love the 350, you know, it’s great. The suites are great. The cabin is great. The whole aircraft’s really great.

Brian Kelly: How many… You guys have a ton of A350s on order? What do you have, about 10 of them now?

Gil West: Well we’ve got, I think number 17, now.

Brian Kelly: Oh, 17 now.

Gil West: Yeah. We’ll ultimately take at least 25.

Brian Kelly: What is your favorite Delta destination to go on a family vacation?

Gil West: Well, on a family vacation I would probably say Fort Myers, Florida is the airport, down to Naples, Florida, mainly because my son has bought a brewery down there so I get free beer, you know.

Brian Kelly: What’s the name of the brewery?

Gil West: It’s called Riptide Brewery.

Brian Kelly: Riptide Brewery.

Gil West: Make sure you go there.

Brian Kelly: I’m going to check that out, as a beer lover. So one of the things I love asking frequent flyers is, like, weird preflight rituals or things that you do. I know someone taught me years ago to look when you enter the door of a plane, a lot of aircraft have the manufacturing plate, and I always look at it. And a lot of times people look at me suspiciously, like, “Why is this guy looking at the serial number of the plane?” But do you have any weird pre-flight or in-flight rituals?

Gil West: First of all, I get there early, you know. I don’t know what it is. I am just obsessed with never being late, literally. When I get there, I walk the airports and usually chat with a lot of the airport agents, the flight attendants and the pilots, ultimately. So for me that’s … I just get really charged up on that part.

Brian Kelly: Do you ever fly incognito or do you always kind of announce yourself when you’re there?

Gil West: You know, I don’t know what it is about Delta. There’s some coconut communication system that somehow everybody knows you’re coming, you know. There’s something odd there. So I mean, I try to, but the reality is we’re really like a family here, the culture is something spectacular. Hope you see that as you fly us.

Brian Kelly: So how often are you on the road?

Gil West: Oh my gosh. Well quite a bit, you know, seems like once or twice a week somewhere. Yeah.

Brian Kelly: So I imagine you’re, for non-revving and positive space, you’re pretty high up on the list.

Gil West: Yeah, well a little bit.

Brian Kelly: All right. We’re going to take a quick break right now. I’ll see you in a minute.

[Commercial break]

Brian Kelly: All right, let’s get into operations. You know, Delta — I think you have, out of 700,000 flights, 1,500 or so canceled. How has Delta been able to make itself the airline that performs the best?

Gil West: Yeah. Well, thanks for the question, thanks for the recognition on behalf of all of us here at Delta. So, first, it’s the people. I think everything ultimately comes down to the people. Great culture. And I think you couple that with just the focus of the team about excellence, the journey that we’ve been on, and just really the competitiveness of the team and the mindset that we don’t index on the success or the performance … We are all obsessed with how do we just get better, better and better. So we kind of look at things through that lens and we’re pretty disciplined with our approach. As you’ve looked around Delta, we have what we call a flight plan that orients all of us around what are we trying to achieve. We’re nuts over metrics and goals and measurements and process and we recap that. We’re always looking for opportunities, of course. We survey all of you to death. All that data and feedback gives us a good line of sight of where do we need to work and improve. The execution factor here, EQ, is off the charts with the team. So, it’s really a natural act for us. And ironically, as you continue on the journey of improvement, it gets harder and harder, but I think the team just really thrives on that challenge.

Brian Kelly: Yeah. I’ve visited a lot of airlines ops centers and they made a very clear point to point out that it’s operations and customer.

Gil West: It is.

Brian Kelly: And I was surprised to see people on the social media team and PR team sitting in there. Can you explain the shift and what you’re trying to accomplish by merging those teams?

Gil West: Look, we think the foundation, you know, of creating a good customer experience is operational excellence. Without that, everything’s kind of a house of cards, I would argue. But with that foundation, it enables our people really to take that extra step and create a great experience, a memorable experience, frictionless experience. But we’ve tried to organize more and more around that. I think big companies and airlines being a part of that, it’s natural to create all these silos. And these are … I mean, every piece of the company is a big business by itself. And we’ve really worked hard to break those silos down, where it’s more about how do we focus on the customer and the customer experience. So within our operational control center that is the nerve center of the airline 24/7, 365 — we’ve embedded all our teams in there. So it’s not just dispatchers or maintenance troubleshooters or technicians, but it’s across all aspects of the company, not just the operations, but we have customer care, we have corporate communications, social media — the whole team is embedded there. So everybody that’s involved in the company has a presence there. And it’s really powerful, because as things happen and we’re working through the operation, if a flight is canceled or delayed, how do we deal with that from a customer vantage point so we don’t just kind of lose sight of what it’s really about.

Brian Kelly: And actually, I had a somewhat bad experience on a regional carrier recently and I sent in some clear feedback and actually Ed Bastion’s assistant, within a day, had actually called me ’cause I’m a Platinum and it was first class. Is that normal? Did they do that because I was a blogger or does that actually happen for other people?

Gil West: Well, certainly if we knew …

Brian Kelly: We were talking about that in the office.

Gil West: Yeah. Certainly if we knew who you were, we would but …

Brian Kelly: Wait, you’re saying you didn’t know who I was?

Gil West: No, I do, but, you know …

Brian Kelly: Are you calling me a nobody?

Gil West: We’ve got a customer care organization that really is reaching out, doing the right things. When things happen — of course, as big as we are, as many flights with weather, et cetera, we try to minimize those things obviously and are obsessed about that. But when something happens, we know it’s a make-or-break situation with our customers, so we really try to lean in and learn from that, measure how we do on that. And of course we’re obsessed with net promoter scores and how do we keep getting better and better. So our service recovery, when we look at that and look at it in terms of how is that as a net promoter score? Because when something goes wrong, naturally you would think that would be a big negative number. The journey we’ve been on, it’s turned into a positive number. Even a double-digit positive number as a percent, which is something that is is a guiding light for us from a customer experience.

Gil West: Now I can tell you everywhere we look there’s nothing but opportunities in this space. So, we lean into that with investments where things don’t go right, where there are weak points for us — that’s where we channel our focus and our investment.

Brian Kelly: If someone has a bad experience on Delta, what is the best way for them to get that across? Is it just going to, is it calling?

Gil West: There’s a lot of… What we’ve tried to do is create numerous channels to do that. The most, I think, most readily available and probably the best channel is our people. So as you see somebody, talk to them about what’s going on, they’re empowered to help, whether it’s flight attendants, agents, and Red Coat certainly is a great, great channel, but we have a customer care organization and there’s a number of channels there, internet, social media, phone calls, emails that we can access as well.

Gil West: The survey is another good feedback tool for us. The data behind that, the ability to cut it and personalize it. When you score us a one, believe me, we’re all over it. When you score us a five, we’re mining the data, the comments, and we’re really about how do we go after (it) to improve.

Brian Kelly: Let’s talk about culture. I fly all carriers globally and something that does stick out to me about Delta flight attendants, specifically, and even pilots… I mean, more often than any other carrier, Delta pilots come out to greet the cabin. Actually at LaGuardia this morning, the gate agent said, “Mr. Kelly, thank you for being Platinum Medallion” as she’s scanning and has a line of people. How do you create a service culture? So many people think airline employees are just surly, right? How have you made Delta employees, in large, different?

Gil West: I’ve been called worse than surly. But yeah, I think, for us, we’ve got a little different model in principle. First, it’s about our people. We take care of our people, the Delta family, and in turn they’re enabled to take care of our customers. So, I mean, we’re ultimately after the customer experience, but we do it through our people and the culture that we build and view that as the essential element. So as a service culture, if you don’t take care of your people, you’re not going to get good service. It’s really that simple. So we invest in the people. We’re fortunate that we can be very selective of the people we hire. The training investments, the tools that we give them, and most importantly, the ability to empower them to do things.

Brian Kelly: And you do profit sharing, which is somewhat …

Gil West: We do.

Brian Kelly: Do you think that’s a big factor in keeping people?

Gil West: Yeah, I mean, our people have to share in the success of the company, so we have reward systems. Some of those are monthly rewards. The biggest that you mentioned is our profit sharing. So we’re the only company in the world in history to ever pay $1 billion of profit sharing to our employees. This year should be the sixth year of us doing that in a row. So we invest in the business obviously, but people have to share in it.

Brian Kelly: What would you recommend to someone who has an amazing experience with a Delta employee? I know a lot of times we will complain, but… And does it matter if I send an email saying this flight attendant was great, is that actually going to help that person?

Gil West: Oh, for sure. Yeah. Well, first of all, yeah, the feedback’s great. I mean, in any sense. But the compliments are much appreciated at a personal level. So honestly, just telling them that is amazing impact. The surveys are another good way to do it. Just put a name in there, flight attendant, we’ll circle back with them. But the face-to-face or dropping some flight attendant or a gate agent a note, it’s unbelievable the impact it has, or a letter — those kinds of things are much, much appreciated.

Brian Kelly: Let’s switch for a second to technology. In operations, technology can be an Achilles heel for a lot of airlines. And in 2016 Delta had a meltdown of its own. What did you learn from that and how are you investing in technology to guide the way?

Gil West: Yeah, that’s a great question. Certainly any of us that were here, they’ll never forget that, by the way. But it was really a call to action for us, and like anything, we’re obsessed in dissecting things to learn lessons from it. Now, there’s a lot of big lessons from that event to us. But most importantly was just the basic, reliable infrastructure backup systems. We invested a half a billion dollars for the necessary redundancies that we honestly should have had, thought we had to some degree, but didn’t have when the power tripped and the switch blew, and things didn’t happen as they were designed to. So that really caused us to go, like, “What do we have to do and let’s do it.” And we did. But it also, I think more importantly, probably lit off that digital journey for us and says, okay, that’s all well and good, but that’s table stakes.

Gil West: So now how do we really take and transform the company from a technology innovation standpoint in the digital space? And you know, ironically it happened on power outage, and the system loss happened just a few weeks after we hired a new CIO. And I feel for him, because he’s like, “Arrgh!” You know? But what that was was a catalyst …

Brian Kelly: He hit the wrong button or something?

Gil West: Yeah. You know, he said go and hit the stop button. But it was… No. But it was such an important catalyst. I think it accelerated our digital journey (by) years. Without that, I’m not sure we would have been where we are now. So all the architecture that flowed from that, the API structure, the ability to really invest and move towards that. And now we see it as a competitive advantage that we’re really building a lot of momentum around and there’s just a lot more we’re doing with technology now.

Brian Kelly: Let’s move into the customer experience, like, the onboard product and planes. A lot of aviation geeks in here. The suites are now rolling out on a lot of retrofitted planes. Have the suites been received as well as you thought they’d be? And what’s the overall, like, customer feedback on the Delta ones?

Gil West: Yeah, I mean it’s been great feedback. The suites are incredible. Hopefully you all get to enjoy them. But like anything, we’re always looking at how do we improve them? So there’s little things we look at and we get feedback obviously from you, from our flight attendants, on how do we keep adjusting this and make it even better and better. So as we’re doing interior modifications or we’re buying new aircraft and we’re spec-ing the suites or the cabin, all that gets rolled in on an iterative, ongoing basis. So the suites are exceptionally well-received. Especially for guys as tall as you are.

Brian Kelly: I know, and I actually fit. I was on the inaugural 350 flight to Nerida several years ago. That was awesome. You guys made the decision — so you don’t have any 737 Maxes and even the 787s with Trent engines, which have been plaguing airlines, too. Is it just pure luck that you guys have chosen the right fleet …

Gil West: Yeah.

Brian Kelly: … or how do you…

Gil West: Yes. You know, we’re one of the biggest Boeing operators in the world, by the way. We love Boeing, we love Airbus. We love competition. As we looked through these decisions, like do we buy the Max or the 321 Neo’s, these are always tough decisions. We do tend to look at it holistically though. It’s not just a “what’s the cost” piece of the equation for us. Customer experience, we value, there’s other kind of ancillary values that we create through our maintenance engineering groups. We come to the conclusions on a given fleet, but these are really tough decisions. We’ve got complete confidence in Boeing, and I’m sure they’re going to work through all the issues they’ve experienced with with the Max, and they’re extremely capable. We love our Boeing aircrafts.

Brian Kelly: Have you guys announced with the 777X, what your plans are for that? Do you guys have orders or?

Gil West: Well, we don’t have orders for the 777X. We operate 777s. We’ve got the 200s. It’s an incredible aircraft. You know, I love it. By the way, as an aside, I started my career at Boeing as an engineer, so on the 57, 67 programs, which are now retiring, so I’m really getting old. Yeah, I think they’re incredible aircraft. The 67 is a great example.

Brian Kelly: But no plans yet for the 77X?

Gil West: No, not yet. We have a big decision to make, though, within probably the next year or so, is what do we do longer-term with our 67s and our 57s, so there’s a number of aircraft types in play. The NMA is one of those that we’ve certainly looked at.

Brian Kelly: You guys have started, like American has started, moving some 767s more domestic than European. I know you guys have.

Gil West: We have a few. We’re doing interior mods.

Brian Kelly: Yeah.

Gil West: As you probably know, we’ve got a 767-400 interior mod that we’ve just prototyped, certified. It’s an incredible interior as well.

Brian Kelly: Do you ever foresee a day where Delta would bring back a true first class? International first class has slowly been dying out, is that…?

Gil West: Yeah. As you’ve seen, we really try to give our customers choices, so we’ve segmented the cabin, certainly seating’s part of that, and you’ve got your choice, but the Delta One Suites in particular, the experience is something we’re really leaning into. Food and beverage is a good example where you invest heavily into that. We also  — inflight entertainment, as you know, we’ve invested heavily into that. We’re big believers that you’ve got to create a great experience. I mean, certainly, the longer you fly the better that experience needs to be. And it’s a kind of a never-ending journey for us, really. And it’s not just the product on the aircraft, it’s the airport investments that we make, the people investments.

Brian Kelly: I love your partnership with CLEAR, I think I was really — you guys clearly led the way with that before others copied you, but it saved me 10 minutes this morning and time is money.

Brian Kelly: Coming up after the break, Gil and I talk travel trends and where he thinks biometrics will fit in five years from now. That’s all ahead on Part Two of Talking Points Live at the Delta Flight Museum. Stay tuned.

[Commercial break]

Brian Kelly: Welcome back to Talking Points. This is a special episode recorded live from the Delta Flight Museum in Atlanta at our TPG reader event. Here again is Gil West, senior executive VP and COO for Delta, and me, Brian Kelly, The Points Guy.

Brian Kelly: Let’s move on. So, actually, a former Delta executive just got sworn in as the FAA administrator. I know you worked with him, correct?

Gil West: Had the honor of working with him.

Brian Kelly: Let’s talk about the state of air travel in the U.S. I mean, we always hear that air traffic is, we’re so far behind, and from an operations perspective, can you ever get to really where you want to be with the current system?

Gil West: Well, first of all, I mean, I would first say, I mean, the FAA is committed to improving air traffic control. And ironically, Captain Steve Dixon, that’s head of the FAA now, he led our flight operations group, our pilots group, and he was on all the working committees working with the agency in the industry to how — what’s our forward-looking view of air traffic control? For us, of course, it’s primarily in the Northeast with the congestion… So I think there’s two pieces to it. One is better using the tools that are there to manage air traffic control. And I personally think there’s a huge opportunity to keep driving that. Technology’s the other path and we’ve committed resources on-site with the FAA to work with them and… What would we do? I mean, take it or leave it in our suggestions, but this is how we would manage the ops and the flow and ultimately the throughput in the system.

Gil West: And it’s a really collaborative approach. We don’t believe in just — we’re not rock throwers. We’re trying to figure out how to, with solutions. And I think there …

Brian Kelly: Do you think deregulation of air traffic control would drive that? Or is that…?

Gil West: I mean, the industry’s debated that, we’ve had our view of it. Look, if that was the fix, I think we would all say, “Let’s go.” At the end of the day, I think it’s more important on how are we managing with the tools that exist and how do we improve the tools through technology to drive better throughput, better operational performance. So it’s hard to gauge is deregulation a real factor in that? I personally think there are so many other things we could do to drive better air traffic control in the Northeast that, you know, that’s on the list. It’s always worth looking at, but there’s higher priorities in my mind.

Brian Kelly: Let’s look forward five years in travel. What are some of the big trends that you’re seeing in travel that are shaping the way you do your job?

Gil West: Great question. I think certainly technology and innovation transforming the experience, and we’re trying to lean into that very heavily. We have innovation centers, we partner with venture capital, in Silicon Valley and other places — here in Atlanta, actually, with accelerating companies, accelerators and startups. So that we’re really trying to gather: What can we do, where is innovation in other industries that we can look to and grab the best practices. I think our general principle is create a frictionless experience for our customers, create a memorable experience for our customers. So we have kind of guiding lights for us on that path and we see tons of opportunity. The product itself, the technology and flight entertainment as an example. You probably know we created our own inflight entertainment system that we’ve deployed, and content. Ed’s already messaged we’ve got to find a path of free Wi-Fi.

Gil West: Those are the kinds of things, I think that we’ve just got to create an at-home experience with less friction. The other piece that we’ve really driven through our digital transformation is to be able to create better tools for our employees. And our employees, I mean, armed with the right information and tools, are incredible. That is our competitive advantage. So that personalization of the travel experience, to humanize it, personalize it. It’s all about trying to get information and tools to our people.

Brian Kelly: Do you foresee, like — biometrics I think could save all of us time, like waiting in a TSA line to have a human kind of go, “Eh.” Do you think in five years we’ll be walking through airports and scanning our eyes?

Gil West: That’s our vision. And, by the way, we advocate and try to pilot and ultimately drive that change through the regulators, but absolutely. We of course led on a biometrics internationally, facial biometrics. We want to drive it domestically, and it’s optional. People can use it or not. Also that TSA experience in general, we really have a vision of — and we collaborate again as partners with the TSA — how do we just create that into a walking experience where you don’t have to divest of anything or put bags on conveyors or… How do we create that? We obviously all want safety and security, but how do we transform that experience and any friction in the process, from a customer standpoint? I mean we consume our own product, we see it. So how do we create that type of experience?

Brian Kelly: Final question. It’s a very tough one. Window or aisle seat?

Gil West: Well, yeah. You know, I’ve kind of changed over as I’ve gotten older. I’m more the aisles now. I’d rather not say why, but that’s kind of where I …

Brian Kelly: Raise your hand if you’re an aisle. Raise your hand if you’re a window. It’s almost close.

Gil West: I don’t want to disturb my neighbor trying to get out. Yeah.

Brian Kelly: Everyone give it up for Gil and everyone at the Delta Flight Museum who’s helped us. That’s it for this episode of Talking Points, coming to you live from Atlanta and Delta’s headquarters. Please make sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Tune in weekly to Talking Points and tell your friends. Many thanks to my special guest, Gil West, senior executive VP and COO at Delta Airlines and to everyone at the Delta Flight Museum in Atlanta and my dream team at TPG. And thanks to all the TPG readers who came out to this live recording of Talking Points. I’m Brian Kelly. Safe travels, everyone.

Brian Kelly: Okay, let’s party.

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