How Delta Landed on the 100 Best Companies to Work For List

The next time you have a bad day at work, imagine you’re instead in an airport surrounded by hundreds of frustrated customers demanding to know when they’ll get home. Or try ­explaining an unexpected layover to a plane full of grumpy passengers. That sort of pressure is why the airline industry is among the most stressful of work environments. But in the case of Delta Air Lines (DAL), many employees don’t just tolerate their jobs. They love them.

Among the companies that made the cut for Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list, the most surprising may well be Delta, which is on the list this year for the first time; it’s also the first airline to make the cut in a dozen years. Unlike staff at many other firms on the list, Delta’s employees deal with the public on a regular basis, and they work in an industry known for ruthless cost cutting and economic shocks. Meanwhile, Delta doesn’t offer free haircuts or massages or other lavish perks that are familiar in fields like finance and technology. In fact, only about 5,700 of the company’s more than 85,000 employees work at headquarters—the rest are scattered in the air or on the ground at airports around the world.

So how did the company do it? The answer lies in a shrewd compensation scheme, a strong set of values dating back to the company’s founder, and a deliberate effort to double down on those values in recent years.

In February, Delta handed out more than $1 billion in profit-sharing bonuses to its employees. Again. It was the third year in a row the carrier handed out more than a billion in bonuses to its employees. (As they are every year, the checks were distributed on Valentine’s Day.)

The profit-sharing program, which this year paid out 10% of pretax earnings to employees, was established in 2005, when Delta was still clawing its way out of bankruptcy and wanted to align employee interests to the financial success of the airline. Delta isn’t the only airline to share profits with employees, but its bonus program is widely regarded as the most generous—for an airline or any blue-chip company. “We promised that at the point where the company would turn it around, our employees would receive the first fruits of those efforts,” says Delta CEO Ed Bastian, a 19-year veteran who helped set up the program in his previous role as CFO.

CEO Ed Bastian in the Delta Sky Club’s open-air lounge at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport.Photo: Scott Areman—Courtesy of Delta Air Lines
Photo: Scott Areman—Courtesy of Delta Air Lines

The profit sharing, combined with high pay for the industry, has resulted in an aversion to outside cultural influences—most notably, unions. While Delta’s pilots and flight dispatchers are unionized, it is the only major carrier without a union for flight attendants, baggage handlers, reservation agents, and other groups.

That held true even after Delta merged with the heavily unionized Northwest Airlines in 2008; employees for the combined companies voted down unionizing. Bastian says there was room for only one company’s culture—Delta’s. “We didn’t treat this as a merger of equals,” he says. “Companies make the mistake of wanting everyone to feel great. We were very clear about the Delta brand, while the Northwest culture was contentious, with strikes and unrest.” The unions were initially skeptical, he says, but “buy-in happens. It’s taken years, but it’s a success.”

As for the Delta culture itself, the company relies on the “Rules of the Road,” a booklet outlining a set of principles and values developed in 2007 for executives but now given to every employee. The rules draw heavily on the folksy maxims of Delta principal founder C.E. Woolman, who preached empathy for customers, humility, and respect for the competition. Sample Woolman sayings include “Let’s put ourselves on the other side of the counter,” and “The only monotonous thing about the aviation industry is the constant change.”

Working on a jet engine at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport.Photograph by Gregory Miller for Fortune
Photograph by Gregory Miller for Fortune

Delta culture also includes a letter for all new hires that welcomes them to the “family,” and a program called Velvet 360 that last year let nearly 8,000 frontline employees meet directly with senior executives to ask them about the state of the business.

Every big company, of course, likes inspiring mottoes and is quick to talk up the benefits of such transparency. But in Delta’s case, the proof of a positive corporate culture becomes apparent in the high-pressure situations for which the airline industry is famous.

Last August, disaster struck at Delta when a colossal computer outage grounded flights around the world for a day, leaving travelers stranded at airport gates everywhere. It was a horrible experience for Delta employees and their passengers, and it is exactly the sort of thing that causes an airline’s monthly consumer satisfaction scores to crater. But oddly, that didn’t happen at Delta. Instead, the airline’s scores went up in the wake of the outage.

A Delta employee helps travelers at LaGuardia Airport in New York City last August, after Delta flights around the globe were grounded because of a system outage.Photo: Drew Angerer—Getty Images
Photo: Drew Angerer—Getty Images

Bastian credits this unusual outcome directly to the company’s culture, which led employees to deal with the outage with empathy and good cheer and even resulted in some passengers expressing support for the Delta workers during the ordeal.

To encourage this “we’re in it together” sense of solidarity, Bastian makes a point of flying coach in Delta’s planes and being visible to the company’s frontline workers several times a week. Delta’s leaders also maintain a strong presence on social media, videos, and elsewhere on the Internet in order to reduce the sense of distance at a company where more than a third of the workforce is always on the go.

But while culture is important, the more conventional advantages of a job—namely, pay and benefits—are most important to keeping Delta’s workers happy. So instead of free haircuts or all-you-can-eat kale buffets, Delta focuses on compensating its workers well, with good salaries and the profit-sharing plan, as well as a generous 401(k) program that matches contributions up to 9%.

Bastian says the company is going through a review of benefits its next-generation employees most value, and it may add things here and there—but within limits. “We’re a 90-year-old company—401(k)s for us are a big deal,” he says.

But he points out that Delta employees do get one very special perk. “We have the best benefit there is, which is free travel around the world,” he says. Indeed. Last year, employees and their guests flew more than 4 million flight segments (they fly standby) courtesy of their employer. We’re guessing that most of them would probably say it beats a kale buffet.

A version of this article appears in the March 15, 2017 issue of Fortune as part of our “100 Best Companies to Work For” package.

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