Delta’s CEO just paid out $1.4 billion to his employees. Here are his 3 secrets to being a great boss

Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian was 25 when he first got on a plane. Since then, he’s become one of the most admired CEOs on the Fortune 500.

Bastian, who’s been with the company for over 25 years, has seen it all. There was the industry fallout from the 9/11 attacks; a slew of airlines announcing bankruptcy amid thousands of job cuts in 2005; and later, the pandemic, which slashed aviation jobs by about 43%.

Yet, Delta got through hard times to become the most profitable airline company in the world. It owes much of its success as a Fortune World’s Most Admired Company to Bastian’s leadership. He was also named Chief Executive magazine‘s CEO of the year in 2023.

Bastian took the stage at South by Southwest’s annual series of tech, music and film conferences, joining Fortune’s editor-in-chief Alyson Shontell to describe how he steered the company to success.

  1. People first 

In 2005, Delta joined other big airline companies, like Northwest, US Airways and United Airlines in filing for bankruptcy.

The bankruptcy, which led to at least 7,000 layoffs and pay cuts, also helped kickstart a new era of employee-focused company culture–which starts with employees getting paid before management. Now, Bastian said, employees get “15% of the profits of the company and get paid before management.”

Delta rolled out a profit-sharing model in 2007 and it gave employees a financial cushion when company money was tight. It’s a benefit they’ve continued since a brief pause in 2020. This year, Delta gave employees $1.4 billion under the model through a bonus check that amounted to over 10% of their annual salary.

But “the single most important thing we did,” Bastian told Fortune, “is we started to gather our people together in groups of 200 to 300 people at a time in sessions called Velvet, which are ongoing today, over 20 years later.”

In Velvet sessions, employees talk about the business, their roles in it, and they cast company visions together. “If you do that over 20 years,” he said, “that culture is palpable.”

  1. Innovate during challenging times 

World events, like the 9/11 attacks and the pandemic, drastically changed the airline industry nearly overnight.

At the time of the 2001 attacks, Bastian was working in Delta’s Atlanta office and saw “international business drop to almost nothing overnight,” he said in an interview with The New York Times.

In the following years, Delta made a number of unconventional business moves including its purchase of an oil refinery to offset risks of higher jet fuel prices in 2012. The company announced it would spend $150 million to acquire the refinery, located near Philadelphia, and an additional $100 million to renovate the plant to increase its jet fuel harvest.

Then came a travel-killing pandemic. The industry reported net losses of over $126 billion in 2020; the number of air passengers reduced by 60%, and direct aviation jobs dropped by 43%, according to a study that analyzed the impacts of the pandemic on air transportation.

Bastian’s team at Delta enticed travelers back by eliminating change fees, which helped build trust with customers when they were ready to travel again. They also used the down time to hire and train a strong workforce.

  1. Put your own ego aside 

In response to the pandemic, Bastian decided to go without half his salary for the year, nearly $946,000, in 2020. Meanwhile, the pandemic didn’t spare him personally. His mother, who raised Bastian and his eight siblings, passed away from COVID-19 at the end of February 2020. He said he was “distraught” to lose his “personal hero.”

Still, he said, it was a moment that “was not the time to feel sorry for myself or anyone. This is the time to lead.”

The company saw turnover; about a quarter of the company’s workforce naturally turned over during the pandemic, and Bastian said the company “did not lay one person off throughout the entire pandemic.”

“We had 50,000 people take up to two years off without pay,” he said, and added that benefits and travel privileges were intact. The move shrunk the “company in half overnight.” 20,000 more employees agreed to take an early retirement and once the pandemic cleared, Delta brought people back.

Perhaps another way the Delta CEO likes to save on costs? He flies coach on domestic trips and serves as the face of the airline’s pre-flight safety video.

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com