Delta Air Lines CEO: ‘Domestic revenue on business travel is back’

'We're not trying to get back to 2019. We're trying to get better.'

Sign up for the Fortune Features email list so you don’t miss our biggest features, exclusive interviews, and investigations.

While nearly every industry took a hit in some fashion during the pandemic, perhaps none were devastated more than the travel industry—especially airlines, which not only saw historic drops in bookings but also became a battleground for enforcing precautions (like wearing face masks) to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Yet despite it all, travel demand is roaring back, recently allowing Delta Air Lines, in particular, to experience record breaking bookings this year.

Subscribe to unlock this article and get full access to Fortune.com

While nearly every industry took a hit in some fashion during the pandemic, perhaps none were devastated more than the travel industry—especially airlines, which not only saw historic drops in bookings but also became a battleground for enforcing precautions (like wearing face masks) to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Yet despite it all, travel demand is roaring back, recently allowing Delta Air Lines, in particular, to experience record breaking bookings this year.

“Demand is greater than pre-pandemic levels, and the industry, as a whole, is trying to catch up,” Delta chief executive officer Ed Bastian told Fortune CEO Alan Murray while in conversation at Fortune‘s Brainstorm Health in Marina Del Rey, Calif. on Wednesday. “Domestic revenue on business travel is back.”

Just three months ago, Bastian reminded, the omicron variant was still wreaking havoc. Thus, January and February bookings were slow. But this spring, more people started booking travel—domestically and internationally.

“Everyone started to book their travel. They just needed to get out of the house. They needed to get back to their businesses. Just stir crazy,” Bastian said, adding he’s seeing the same phenomenon going on internationally as more countries start to reopen, initially in Europe but also in Asia, citing Japan and South Korea, in particular.

But Bastian acknowledged that the airline doesn’t have all the people they need to staff onboard and ground crews to handle the current huge push. He noted Delta has hired 15,000 people over the last 15 months, partially because 20% of the workforce retired early during the pandemic. Right now, the carrier is hiring positions across the board, from mechanics to gate agents to pilots.

Named the best domestic airline by the Wall Street Journal in 2021 and a frequent entry on Fortune‘s 100 Best Companies to Work For over the last few years, Bastian cited a number of other projects Delta has in the works to improve service, including the recent opening of a new terminal at Los Angeles International Airport and an upcoming opening at New York City’s LaGuardia Airport.

“We’re not trying to get back to 2019. We’re trying to get better,” Bastian said.

Another thing that has changed dramatically in the last few years is the role of CEO activism. When asked about it by Murray, Bastian replied it’s a good thing, but admitted that it’s hard.

“It doesn’t come without a lot of risks and a lot of vulnerabilities. It’s not something we’re accustomed to dealing with. It’s something we’d rather not deal with. Rather not because, well, it’s a controversy,” Bastian said. “But we’ve all grown up wanting everybody to love us. We’re about selling airplane tickets. We’re not about trying to be a legislator or a politician or trying to be a social advocate. But there come times when what you see happening and the divisiveness in society is impacting your own people, and your people are feeling and carrying the weight of that.”

Bastian cited Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as one of the easier issues on which to take a stand. SkyTeam, the airline alliance spearheaded by Delta, suspended Russia’s national carrier Aeroflot from the group.

“Russia was different—Russia was a patriotic thing that was that was relatively easy to do. I mean, it doesn’t make it easy, it’s costly, but it was the right thing to do, and that line was pretty pretty clear,” Bastian said. He followed up on speaking out about voter rights legislation in Georgia, where Delta Air Lines is based, which he said was hard, but that he needed to do it.

“You wind up in a situation where you want to make certain values of your company, they espouse to your people and your customers are first and foremost,” he continued. “And when you see something that you perceive is in violation against the values of the enterprise, you have a real question on your hands as to what to do with it.”

When asking specifically about the news surrounding the future of abortion rights and possible overturning of Roe v. Wade, Murray pointed out that CEOs can’t speak out on every issue. “My perception is one of the reasons businesses are doing this is because they think the political system is broken. And if you get caught up in the same dogfight that the political system is, you’re going to be no more effective. So how do you decide which issues to take on and which issues to lead?”

Bastian didn’t reply specifically in regards to abortion rights, but he did outline that responses need to be handled carefully: You don’t want to go too quick, but you can’t risk delaying to the point where it looks like you’re being forced into a response.

“The way I’ve come to it, since I’ve had been around this for a handful of years now, is that you have to kind of have a strategy, real time all the time,” Bastian said. “And it’s been about what ‘Who are you? What are your values? What do you promote?’ You got to play offense on this stuff. Not just defense.”