When Delta Air Lines created the chief health officer role in 2021, it was facing an acute, existential threat to its business and still reeling from COVID-19. Fast-forward to 2022; though the pandemic is on its way to becoming endemic, the airline is immortalizing the CHO role to navigate future health crises and workplace challenges that will inevitably emerge long after the pandemic has receded.
Delta’s chief health officer, Henry Ting, was handpicked by CEO Ed Bastian in 2021 and given a clear mandate: rethink how Delta, the No. 2 U.S. airline by passenger volume, protects the health and well-being of staff and passengers. That goal has only gained urgency amid a tight labor market, and at a time when employees, from baggage handlers to pilots, are facing burnout.
Ting, a cardiologist by training, was first introduced to Bastian in 2020. Delta had hired the Mayo Clinic, where Ting was a top executive, to advise the airline on COVID-related cleaning protocols, ventilation practices, and in-air social distancing.
Now a Delta executive, Ting has increasingly been turning his attention to non-COVID matters such as workplace safety, promoting in-flight vegan meal options, and crafting mental health services for exhausted staff. But he’s still advising Bastian on decisions like when to end mask mandates for air travel and the creation of a joint no-fly list for unruly passengers.
Suffice to say, although COVID led to the creation of Ting’s role, he’s casting a much wider net.
“I would never have joined Delta to be the chief COVID officer. I could have just continued to be a consultant and sunset that,” Ting tells Fortune. So why does he have a C-suite role? “In the same way a CFO oversees financial strategies and performance,” he says, “my role as the chief health officer is to enable and oversee people strategies, and at Delta, we believe this is vital to achieving our business goals.”
Delta will post Q1 results this week but said in December it expected flying capacity to reach up to 85% of 2019 levels in its first quarter. Though it has since rebounded from the pandemic, Delta can ill afford another major hit to business, nor can it afford to lose flight attendants or pilots to burnout. Just ask Alaska Airlines, which was roiled by hundreds of costly cancellations recently because of pilot shortages.
“The majority of us have experienced something on the spectrum of emotional stress, anxiety, burnout, or mental health crises,” says Ting. “Obviously we want to be the employer of choice for the workforce of the future. We believe that enhancing health and well-being enhances confidence and loyalty in our business.”
Betting on safety to foster loyalty
Delta earned kudos for its COVID-19 response, a stance that it believes has fostered loyalty with travelers. It only resumed selling middle seats a year ago, for instance, making it the last of the major airlines to do so. Delta also persuaded much of its employee base to receive COVID-19 vaccines, without resorting to mandates, by charging unvaccinated staff a $200 monthly insurance premium among other things.
With new COVID cases in the U.S. holding steady, Delta and its peers are pushing to allow mask mandates to expire on April 18, finding a balance between promoting public health safety and recognizing a shift to some semblance of pre-COVID normalcy. Its mask reversal also comes with the added bonus of reducing an irritant that has led to a number of unpleasant confrontations with passengers, which, though rare, have been a source of stress on pressured crews.
“These pandemic restrictions that we’ve implemented over the last two years were always meant to be lifted as soon as it was safe to do so,” Ting says, noting that while COVID-19 remains in the pandemic stage, it is likely to become a seasonal virus within months. What’s more, he says, society has the tools to manage outbreaks, which no longer lead to large spikes in mortality and hospitalization.
“We are moving from a phase of public health, where the federal government makes the mandates everyone should follow, to one of personal health, which requires you to make an assessment of your own personal risk,” he says. “These restrictions are to buy you time…If you’re not going to lift the mask mandates now, then when would you?”
From cardiology to the C-suite
Ting, 57, didn’t set out to reach the highest echelons of a major corporation. After graduating from Harvard Medical School in 1990, he became an interventional cardiologist, opening blocked arteries and inserting stents. Intrigued by the business world, he later received an MBA from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, along with a health care management certificate from Harvard Business School.
Ting served as New York–Presbyterian’s chief quality officer, consulting and implementing best practices to in-network hospitals. His last role at Mayo Clinic was chief value officer, ensuring that patients received optimal health care at a reasonable cost to themselves and the facility.
At Delta, he recently hired its first physician specializing in mental health to create relevant benefits for the airline’s 75,000 employees. He’s also implemented an employee assistance program, called Resources for Living, that addresses a host of issues affecting mental, emotional, and financial well-being. The program provides employees with access to mental health counselors who are on call 24/7, and 12 free counseling sessions.
Destigmatizing mental health talk in the workplace is at the top of Ting’s priorities list. In February, he hosted a town hall with Delta’s chief pilot and its mental health physician to discuss mental wellness and burnout. “Mental health is viewed as a sign of weakness or a problem you can wish away,” he says. “But just as you can’t wish away your heart disease or cancer, you can’t wish away your mental health problems.”
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