Ep 08: Hitting a Home Run with Customers

with Bill Lentsch

May 6, 2021

Watch

Highlights
Share Episode
Share on email
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on facebook

Listen

Bill Lentsch
Chief Customer Experience Officer, Delta Air Lines

Bill Lentsch is Chief Customer Experience Officer for Delta Air Lines. In this role, Bill has oversight of In-Flight Service, Airport Customer Service, Reservations and Customer Care, Global Cleanliness, Product and Consumer Insight. 

Bill and his team are responsible for Delta’s industry-leading customer experience and the teams that make it happen. This includes everything from how gate areas, lounges and seats are designed to onboard food, drinks, amenity kits, entertainment and more. Underpinning all of this is Delta’s Global Cleanliness division. His teams provide the necessary training, planning, scheduling, technical support, quality assurance and regulatory oversight to ensure Delta’s flying operations teams are prepared to deliver a safe, reliable and exceptional on-board experience, while continuously connecting with customers so Delta can deliver the most meaningful experiences.  

Prior to his current role, Bill held the title of Executive Vice President – Flying/Air Operations and Senior Vice President – Delta Connection and Delta Global Services. In this role, Bill oversaw Flight Ops and In-Flight Service, coordinating all flying functions for 24,000+ flight attendants, 13,000+ pilots and hundreds of support staff, as well as all aspects of the up to 2,300 daily departures for Delta’s six regional partner airlines. 

Bill has also previously held the title of CEO – Endeavor Air for Delta Air Lines, leading Delta’s wholly-owned regional carrier, which operates up to 700 daily departures under the Delta Connection brand. 

Bill served Northwest Airlines customers for 20 years across various operations roles with increasing areas of responsibility including Flight Operations, Operations Control, Engineering, Airport Customer Service as well as Aircraft Engine and Component Maintenance. 

Bill received a bachelor’s degree in Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics from the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Technology and an MBA from the University of St. Thomas.

 

We really needed in many instances, to rely on the quality of our people, their capability, and the culture that they operate in, which is a culture of making life better for people. I think [this] ultimately allowed Delta to come through this pandemic.

Transcript

Scroll

Gary Bisbee  0:06  

Healthcare leadership is hard work, but what if you could learn from the most brilliant and influential minds in healthcare and beyond? What would you ask them? Would you ask about politics, policy, or maybe leadership? On The Gary Bisbee Show I’ll do just that. You’ll hear from healthcare’s most successful leaders and those experts who they listen to, as together we’ll explore how the healthcare economy is transforming.

 

What do you do next after graduating from the University of Minnesota’s aeronautical engineering program, and playing four years of varsity baseball? Of course, you go design F-16 fighter jets. Our guest today is Bill Lentsch, who has held virtually every senior leadership position at Delta and was asked by Ed Bastian, Delta’s CEO, to create a new position, Chief Customer Experience Officer. We asked Bill how he felt about accepting Ed’s request nine days before Coronavirus was declared a pandemic. For those of us in healthcare, it’s always instructional to learn from executives in other industries. Delta and healthcare have much in common since both industries are highly regulated, competitive, and have a dependence on data and its accuracy. Delta customers are interested in price, convenience, and safety, all of which are becoming more common for customer expectations in health care. Bill shared his views of how to structure the customer experience role. He worked through how his team identifies the primary interests of customers and how that has evolved over the last 15 months during COVID. He discussed partnerships with Mayo and Emory and why Delta created a chief medical officer role. Delta kept the middle seat in coach open well after the competition were selling theirs. You’ll find Bill’s rationale instructive for operating a customer-centric organization. Delta is one of the largest US-based airlines with (pre-COVID) 5,400 flights daily, serving 325 destinations in 52 countries. There’s much to learn from this conversation with Bill about leadership, organizational culture, customer centric strategy, and of course—for those of us that are frequent fliers—how Delta can be number one in on time arrivals.

 

Good afternoon, Bill, and welcome.

 

Bill Lentsch  2:36

Good to be with you, Gary. How are you today?

 

Gary Bisbee  2:40

I’m well, thank you. Welcome to the microphone. We’re pleased to have you here. It’s been a hectic year for all the airlines, so we’re delighted you took a minute out to be with us. We like to get to know our guests, dig into their backgrounds a little bit to figure out motivations, and so on. What was life like growing up for you, Bill?

 

Bill Lentsch  3:04

I’m from a family of seven children, a very close Catholic family raised in the Minneapolis St. Paul area. I had four older siblings and two younger, so I was kind of lost in the middle of the pack there for a period of time. My family played a lot of athletics, both boys and girls. My father was very involved in athletics. During summers, and even during the school year, we were constantly on the run going from ball field to ball field, from gymnasium to gymnasium. It’s remarkable. My father worked hard to support the large family. I know he did well in his profession, but it amazes me that he was able to stay on top of the schedule we had. He was at every practice. He was at every game. He was an incredible support. A very active family, really involved in athletics, and I spent a lot of time during summers out running around in the street, in the backyard, in the front yard, pickup game after pickup game.

 

Gary Bisbee  4:05

I know you played baseball at Minnesota. Was that your favorite sport?

 

Bill Lentsch  4:09

Baseball was my favorite sport. I had a brother who played professional baseball. In fact, he was a high school and college teammate of Hall of Famer Paul Molitor. I grew up in the area of Paul Molitor and Jack Morris and Dave Winfield in St. Paul. For a small town tucked in the Midwest where you don’t necessarily expect baseball players to be bred, there was a lot of good baseball around. These were my idols as I was growing up watching them play ball. I wanted to be like these guys were, so I spent a lot of time hanging around the ball field watching them. That’s where I grew my love for baseball.

 

Gary Bisbee  4:45

What about aviation? You must have a love for that as well. When did you first become interested in aviation?

 

Bill Lentsch  4:51

If I remember correctly, I was probably three or four years old. I had an uncle. His name is Al but I called him Uncle Airplane. He flew in the Air Force active duty for some period of time and then he went into the reserves after and lived in Florida. He was based out of Homestead Air Force Base, but quite often, he would fly his aircraft along with crew up to the Twin Cities reserve base here. When he did, my father (his brother) would take me out to the airport to spend some time walking the airplane, I’d get a little bit of time sitting in the cockpit, have the yoke in my hand, and steered left and right. That was where the fascination for aviation started. Then, throughout my entire life—through grade school, high school, college, and into my professional world—I’ve always had a lot of aviation rolling through my blood. I’ve never been able to get rid of aviation blood, but it was my uncle who got me started back when I was four or five years old.

 

Gary Bisbee  5:55

You majored in Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Minnesota, so you studied formally at that point. Where did you go out of that program? What was your first position?

 

Bill Lentsch  6:07

While I was at the University playing baseball, just as a little bit of an aside, there were very few engineers who were on the baseball team. All great guys, but the engineering program along with a baseball schedule was a little bit of a challenge. We didn’t fly at that time. We would play 10 big games in Champaign, Illinois. We were in West Lafayette, Indiana. We’d go to Iowa City. We were always on the bus, and I had to sit in the front of the bus in order to get my studying done while everyone else was playing cards in the back of the bus. When I finished my degree at the University of Minnesota, the first role I took was at General Dynamics in Fort Worth, Texas. I spent the first two and a half to three years of my career as a wing and tail designer on the F-16 fighter jets, so it gave me a really good appreciation for the manufacturing side of the business. My degree was aerospace engineering with a concentration in structures, so being able to work structures on such a fascinating, incredible machine like the F-16 was a great way to start dipping the toe in the water after college. I thoroughly enjoyed that job.

 

Gary Bisbee  7:21

After building wings and tails for the F-16, did you go immediately to Northwest? Or what was the connection that got you to Northwest Airlines?

 

Bill Lentsch  7:30

My wife and I are both from the Twin Cities area, and we really enjoy living here. The next step wasn’t Northwest. I spent a year working for a local company that built full-scale static and fatigue test systems to test aerospace vehicles. These are the structures you would put a full-scale airplane in and simulate the service life of an airplane to get a sense of where it had structural deficiencies. The Boeing’s and, at that time, the McDonnell Douglas Airbus were the purchasers of these systems. Then in 1989 was when I started my career with Northwest Airlines as a structures engineering in the maintenance division.

 

Gary Bisbee  8:15

Then there were a variety of bankruptcies in the 2000s. It was a tough time for the airline business. Ultimately, Northwest and Delta merged and you went with Delta. What was it like to go from Northwest with its culture to Delta with its culture? It must have been different.

 

Bill Lentsch  8:34

Two very different cultures, but I would say very complementary cultures. To put this in perspective, I had 19 to 20 years of experience with Northwest Airlines at the time of the merge. Since then, I have had another 12 years with the merged company, so roughly 31/32 years in the business. Northwest was—if nothing else—very disciplined around operational performance, using big data to understand how the business is running and then leveraging that data to drive improvement in the operations. In the decade of the 90s, Northwest was known as the on-time machine and it was top in class for on-time performance and “completion factor performance,” (or cancellation), best in bag handling performance. Delta, on the other hand, had this incredible focus on people, on the customer, on its employees, had an incredible brand. The combination of the two makes a top airline in the entire airline space. When you look at reliability, when you look at customer service, you look at the quality of the brand, you look at the financial performance, the combination of all that came together very nicely. I would say two very different cultures, two very complementary cultures, but the transition was not easy. If you were in the Northwest space before the merge: more of a unionized environment, very focused on operational reliability. Delta, less so on the unionized front, but really focused on that direct relationship with employees. The Northwest employees weren’t really sure about what that was all about because it wasn’t the environment they had grown up in but today, across the board, we see this in the survey data we get back from our employees. We do a lot of employee surveys internally. Are you proud to work for Delta? Is Delta a place you enjoy working for? We have three questions we ask. The engagement scores are as high as they have ever been, so it was a real successful combination of the two cultures.

 

Gary Bisbee  11:01

As a frequent flyer, and I fly a lot of Delta, I think the culture (looking at it from the standpoint of a customer) is just terrific, so congratulations there. During your time at Delta,—and I assume at Northwest but for sure at Delta—it seems like you’ve led almost every piece of Delta Airlines at one point or another. What would you say is your favorite posting in terms of leading different units?

 

Bill Lentsch  11:30

Over my 31+ years with the airline, the majority of that time has been in the world of operations and customer service. I’ve had airports, I’ve had flight operations, in-flight operations. I’ve had maintenance responsibilities, operations centers, been around the horn at various levels. My favorite role of all of those has been leading the airport operations. At one time, I had the responsibility to run the hub in Minneapolis on the airport side. From that role, I moved into having responsibility for all global airports. At the airport, where all of the hard work of our pilots and our flight attendants and our mechanics and our ground workers and our rez agents and all of the support staff that go behind it, our cargo agents,—I don’t mean to leave anyone out—it all comes together for the customer at the airport. Having the opportunity to see how all of those components come together and ultimately serve the customer— as we push back on time with their bag, we give them a smile, send them on their way. In many cases, they’re off to something really exciting, really motivating, maybe a big family event. It’s wonderful to see all of that come together. That’s where I got the greatest satisfaction. I have loved all my roles, but the one I’ve enjoyed most is where I see the Delta product and Delta service come together collectively and meet the customer.

 

Gary Bisbee  13:06

You took your current role as the Chief Experience Officer shortly before COVID, correct?

 

Bill Lentsch  13:14

It was probably nine days before COVID was declared a pandemic. I am regularly asked the question, “Wasn’t that just horrible timing?” My response to that is the timing couldn’t have been better. It’s the first time in our history of Delta that we’ve had a Chief Customer Experience Officer and probably never before was there such a need to have this intense focus on changing customer expectations and needs, so being able to bring all of those organizations responsible for delivering the experience to the customer together into one organization put us in a position where we could listen and act very quickly and adapt to the changing needs of the customer. Whether it was around their desire to understand what it was we were doing to keep them safe, what we were doing to keep them safe. “Maybe we don’t want to serve as much onboard the airplane at this time because there’s some concern about the number of touchpoints between flight attendants and the customers,” so we de-contacted the catering for a period of time. Having the opportunity to put all the leaders of those functions together in a room and have a conversation around what we’re hearing from the customer and what we need to do to address it, the timing could not have been better. As a result of this, the team has developed a great report, has developed an incredible level of camaraderie. Over the course of this last year, I have not heard anyone on my team say, “That’s not my job.” Everyone has been willing to pitch in for whatever it takes to serve the customer.

 

Gary Bisbee  14:57

That’s terrific, and really needed in this kind of environment. You made the decision to take the position before COVID. What was your thinking at that point?

 

Bill Lentsch  15:07

At that point, the thinking was we have—over the course of the previous 11 years of the merged company of Northwest and Delta—developed and continue to hold what is considered to be a premier position as far as operational reliability goes. We have tuned up the game. We’re never completely satisfied with that, but we had come a long way in driving great operational performance. The thought then was, we need to amp up the game while we have great employees who deliver great service and have for some time and the feedback from the customer has been great. What can we do to elevate even further the experience for the customer? What was this vision for excellent customer service in three to five years? This is one that our CEO Ed Bastian laid out at CES in Las Vegas back in January of 2020. This vision we have for what life is going to be like as a customer traveling on Delta in a few years. Bringing the teams together who have to execute on that was really what this was all about, elevating that experience to meet the vision we rolled out at CES in January of 2020.

 

Gary Bisbee  16:24

How do you go about setting priorities? First of all, it’s a new position, the first one Delta had. Secondly, COVID was right there. How do you think about setting priorities for that position?

 

Bill Lentsch  16:39

It’s really simple. This one’s not rocket science. It’s about listening to the customer. What are the customer’s needs? What are their expectations and how do you exceed those? Whether it’s through survey programs, it’s through focus groups we have, or any other means of gaining insight from the consumer, we have an organization of consumer insights, specialists, and analysts who do a lot of work in this regard to give us an understanding of the changing needs of the customers, not only today but where are they going to be in the future? What is it that we then need to design and execute in order to meet that need? It’s about listening to the customer. They are the ones who help us determine the priorities now. We can’t chase everything and there is a limit to what we can invest in. At that point, we have to start thinking about the best initiatives to go after, given the limited resources we have to achieve the needs the expectations of the customer. We first listen to the customer, then we have to put a little bit of business management around that, but the customer guides us.

 

Gary Bisbee  17:49

How would you say the customer concerns or interests have evolved over the last year or so during COVID?

 

Bill Lentsch  17:58

Just before the pandemic, Delta was coming off its sixth year of record profitability and paying up profit sharing to our employees. Things were good. We were ready to make significant investments in things like more digitization, self-serve types of interfaces with the customer, make investments in airports, etc. Then COVID hit. Of course, the customer’s needs changed dramatically. Their focus was no longer on schedule and no longer on pricing. It was really around “are you going to help me social distance?” and “are you going to clean your facilities and your airplanes much more than you have in the past?” While we were proud of the product we were putting forward, customers told us we needed to do more, so we went through our airports and we went through our airplanes. We went through the entire travel journey our customer goes through to identify what could we do to meet their needs around social distancing, cleanliness, and ensure that customers who did business with Delta were appropriately wearing their PPE. These were responsibilities that our flight attendants and our agents in the airports were not hired to do, but we were asking them to help us enforce these kinds of things because we make a promise to the customer about what they’re going to experience when they get to Delta: very clean, well-sanitized, appropriately distanced, everyone wearing their PPE to make them comfortable. That’s what the consumer wanted. For the majority of the past 12 months, that’s what they wanted. We’ve now started to see a little bit of a shift. They still want that, but they expect that’s kind of table stakes now. Now we’re getting back to schedule. Are we giving them the flights at the time they want them? Pricing? Are we providing a competitive price, good value for the product that we’re delivering? People are learning how to live with COVID, vaccination rates are going up, the immunity levels are going up (not yet to herd immunity). As we start seeing the demand come back, we’re starting to see a shift away from social distancing and cleanliness, back to schedule, price, and some of the amenities we’re delivering onboard, whether it’s food and beverage, the inflight entertainment, those types of things.

 

Gary Bisbee  20:20

Did you form any partnerships over the course of the year to help? I know Dr. Tang is now on board, but how did you think about getting clinical expertise involved?

 

Bill Lentsch  20:33

We’re experts at operating airplanes and getting people and their baggage safely and reliably to their destination. We’re not experts in cleaning. We’re not experts in the medical field, so we spent a good amount of time evaluating partnerships with those who we believe are. We developed a partnership with the Mayo Clinic, with Emory Health, we developed a partnership with Lysol, with PRL. We brought these experts together with us and we’ve developed this collaborative approach to designing what it is that we are delivering, not only to our customers but to our employees who need to feel safe as well. Through that partnership with Mayo, we got to know Dr. Henry Tang quite well. Over the course of the year, he expressed interest and we were very interested in bringing him on as our very first Chief Health Officer, the very first that we know of in the airline space. This is all about how our focus on cleanliness and the well-being of our employees and our customers is not just here for COVID. We’re making a long-term investment in changing this component of the brand. Our customers should expect going forward that the level of cleanliness, the standard that we’ve set, the focus on their well-being is not going to diminish when COVID becomes a thing of the past.

 

Gary Bisbee  22:07

It seems to me that there has been a bit of a seat change among the airlines in terms of this focus on cleanliness and safety and so on. Do you think that will continue? Is the seat change and how you treat those issues of safety, cleanliness, and so on going to be changed?

 

Bill Lentsch  22:33  

I can speak for Delta, but I don’t know what the other carriers are thinking. In my organization, I have a vice president of global cleanliness. On his staff are about 200 individuals, including nearly 100 cleaning ambassadors who are out at our various airports overseeing the cleaning process with our cleaning suppliers. That’s an organization that didn’t exist a year ago. That’s an organization that will continue, as far as I’m concerned, indefinitely, forever, because our focus on safety is not going to change. We set a standard for cleanliness, the global cleanliness team went out and executed against that. In fact, they’ve overachieved in my mind, and our customers are telling us the same thing. Now what I’m asking them to do—whether it’s onboard standardization and cleanliness of the aircraft or if it’s in our airport facilities, working alongside the TSA and the CBP and others who help process our customers to our general offices down in Atlanta—is to continue to innovate, find new ways, not giving up on the standard. In fact, I want them to continue to elevate the standard, but let’s look for new ways for surface cleanliness, for air cleanliness, ways that we can ensure that our customers and our employees believe that we have their well-being as our top priority and they feel incredibly confident coming to work or coming on board our airplanes.

 

Gary Bisbee  24:13

About six weeks ago there was an article in the Wall Street Journal about the middle seat and how Delta was not selling the middle seat in coach. I believe Delta was the last airline to keep that middle seat open. You are going to begin selling the middle seat going forward now, but what was your thinking about that? What’s caused you to decide you can now sell the middle seat?

 

Bill Lentsch  24:39

Back when we made this decision (which was probably the April/May timeframe), even though there wasn’t enough demand to fill up our middle seats, we made the decision that, as demand starts coming back, we were going to protect that middle seat and give space to our customers. Initially, there was more safety focus because at that time we didn’t understand how COVID was transmitted. We didn’t understand whether it was through aerosol droplets or respiratory droplets or if it was surface transmissions. Initially, there was the focus on safety, but as we became smarter and smarter about this through the help of our partners to understand that it was primarily through respiratory droplets, we convinced ourselves—Dr. Tang and the men in the Mayo staff as well as the staff on our advisory board (we have an advisory board of medical experts, it’s more than just the Mayo Clinic)—we were convinced that it was safe to sell the middle seat, but the customer was telling us they still wanted their space. Nine months ago, we were very vocal that our approach is value-centered. We’ve said this so many times in public: it is people before profits. We weren’t going to play the short game and chase any bit of revenue that we could and fill up our seats. We were going to go after the long game, which was about building confidence and trust in the brand, making customers feel as safe and as comfortable as they possibly could, believing that they will remember for a long time how they were treated during this crisis. We were public a couple months ago that we were going to keep the middle seats blocked through the end of April and it was time to make a decision. We put all of the inputs together in this decision and the assessment of all of the input, and it’s safe. We’re comfortable that it’s safe to do, provided that our customers are appropriately masked, and our employees have been doing a nice job ensuring that. Whether it’s in the airport or onboard the airplane, people are appropriately masked. Then also getting some feedback from our customers, not only those who’ve been traveling but those who haven’t been traveling yet. Our corporate customers, particularly those who haven’t been traveling. Are you comfortable now? As we get ready to make this decision, are you comfortable having a sell the middle seat? The feedback we were receiving is, as people become more comfortable with how to live with this virus, they were becoming comfortable with the middle seat being sold. We made that decision in the middle of March and the feedback we have received from our customers across the board has been favorable. Delta is the only carrier today blocking the middle seats, but those middle seats will stay blocked through the end of April, and then they will be occupied as demand continues to come back.

 

Gary Bisbee  27:47

Well done. As a flyer myself, I think that’s terrific. Can we turn from customer loyalty to scale and particularly how to scale an enormous airline like Delta down as quickly as you had to do it? Hospitals have had to go through this, of course, and they didn’t feel they were particularly well educated to do that. They’ve had to learn that on the fly, but how do you think about scaling down? How did that work?

 

Bill Lentsch  28:19

There’s a difference between hospitals and airports, airplanes, airlines, and that is that during this period of the pandemic, the demand on the hospitals has been great. In my world, in aviation, there were very few people flying. I continued to fly throughout the pandemic, but on some of my flights there might have been five, seven, 10 customers between Minneapolis where I live and Atlanta where I work, and I was commuting every week, so the demand was not there for our service. There certainly was an incredible demand for the medical service. For us, scaling down was not hard. There wasn’t much demand anyway. We could put as much social distancing as we wanted, we could put a lot of constraints into the journey through the airport onto the airplane and it really wouldn’t have affected our customers, so scaling down wasn’t a problem. What we did have to do is we had to adjust the size of our workforce. We didn’t do that through furloughs. We were the only carrier to not furlough. We did that through voluntary unpaid leaves by employees. We also offered an early retirement package to bring down the employee numbers. We also retired a good number of aircraft that we’re going to be retiring in a couple of years. We accelerated the retirement of those aircraft and simplified and consolidated the fleet. There are some benefits to that. There’s more consistency in the product. These are more fuel-efficient aircraft, we just accelerated that. That was the easy part. The hard part is—as demand starts to come back, and it’s coming back at a pretty good clip—how do you start lifting some of those constraints you put in the airport, which were sized for six feet of social distancing, whether it’s in the lobby queues or in the TSA checkpoints or around the gate area or the way we go airplanes. How do you start lifting those layers of safety that you’ve put in, knowing that it’s still safe, but knowing that we still need to keep some of these in place, for example, a mask-wearing? How do you start lifting these layers as demand comes back? That’s the real challenging part: knowing where consumers want to fly, what frequency, what gauge, what markets to operate, and then making sure the airports are opened up enough so that we can get those customers through without having them dwell too much in lines because we know that that’s one of the things we want to avoid. We want to keep people moving rather than congregating in big groups, so that’s the real challenge for us. There’s a lot of analysis, a lot of studies that we do on a constant basis to adjust our capacity along the way.

 

Gary Bisbee  31:06

The set of learnings that have gone along with scaling (down now, beginning to scale up)— How do you store that in the institution’s memory so that, if something like this happens again, you can go to this storehouse of learnings?

 

Bill Lentsch  31:21

Throughout the year we naturally have some really low periods of flying, and then we have some very high periods of flying. Spring break, summer, Thanksgiving, and Christmas are the four periods of the year where you have peak flying. On the shoulders of those periods, you have lower volumes, lower levels of flying, so we naturally have learned how to scale up and scale down the airline to a smaller degree. Much of what we have done this time around we have documented. We develop procedures, we develop analyses, we develop studies that ultimately get documented. Some of what we’ve had to do here over the course of the last year a magnified version of what we would do during a normal year anyway, as we scale up and scale down through those peak periods of time. We’ll refer to exactly how we’ve done that before and pull up the playbook and execute it in a greater fashion because we’re talking about a much greater change in scale here.

 

Gary Bisbee  32:24  

You made a comment about innovations in various areas over the course of the last year. Can you sustain those innovations over time? People kind of get worn out after a while, don’t they? Is it possible to sustain the level of innovations that you’ve achieved up to this point?

 

Bill Lentsch  32:58

Many of the innovations we have made over the course of last year have been focused on cleanliness, standardization, spacing, all the things that were very important to customers. Some of those were small in nature, some of them a little bit larger, but all of them very important to the customer. Some are easy to implement, some are not so easy to implement. As we go forward, the changes to all of the cleaning programs that we have laid out, all of the innovations there of those are going to continue to be pretty challenging. One of them, as we’ve been cleaning over the course of the last year, has required us to leave airplanes on the ground for a longer period of time. We call it ground time. At some point, as demand comes back, we’re going to have to shrink that ground time and get back closer to where we were pre-pandemic. What are the innovations? What are the tools? What are the technologies? What are the chemicals that we will be using that will allow our cleaning crews to achieve the same or greater level of cleanliness on board that airplane in a shorter period of time? We have a lot of innovation going on in the world of cleanliness, and some of those are going to be a bit challenging. The other place where we’re doing a lot of innovation is around the digital experience, touchless or contactless interactions with our customers onboard the airplane. When there’s a purchase made today, the only thing we’re selling on board the airplane is earbuds, but as soon we roll out food and beverage, we’re going to be offering some food and beverage for sale as well. What can we do to ensure limited contact between the customer and the flight attendant? We’ve rolled out what we call tap-to-pay technology onboard the airplane so a customer no longer has to hand over their credit card. They can just provide their credit card or a phone that has the same capability to allow them to make the payment for whatever it is they’re purchasing on board. We’re rolling out that technology to airports as well. It’ll be in Sky Clubs at some point, it will be out at our lobbies at some point. The other thing is facial recognition rather than having to use your phone or a printed boarding pass. How can we deploy biometrics in digital identity to allow a curb to aircraft flow rather than having to exchange stuff along the way? Whether it’s with a Delta agent, the TSA, Customs and Border Protection, whatever we can do to make it contactless. We’re making some investments there and we’ll continue to innovate in that space.

 

Gary Bisbee  35:38

I’d like to turn to airports for a moment, and then go on to leadership to wrap up. We were talking earlier and I’ve seen that Delta is rebuilding six or seven major airports. You mentioned there’s something like $14 billion being spent on this over a period of years. Did that building continue during the pandemic? Or did you have to slow that down?

 

Bill Lentsch  36:05

It not only continued, it accelerated in many instances. We have about $14 billion of airport facilities investments that are at various stages of completion, from the east to the west coast, north to south in the US. Some of our largest locations (LaGuardia, Los Angeles). We’ve got work going on in the Minneapolis hub. Atlanta is constantly going through renovation. We took the opportunity. While there were few customers transiting our airports last year, we took the opportunity to accelerate. Not only to continue the investment but to accelerate completion because it was easy to do. The construction work wasn’t getting in the way of the flow of customers because there were very few customers. As an example, the work we’re doing at T3 and the headhouse out in the lobby of LA x is scheduled to be completed 18 to 24 months earlier than originally envisioned. Because we hit the gas pedal and sped these projects up, we were fully committed to them, as were the airport authorities. We weren’t going to back out on that commitment. Being able to accomplish them earlier is going to give our customers more opportunity to enjoy them sooner.

 

Gary Bisbee  37:23

This has been a terrific interview. Let’s wrap up if we could with a few questions about leadership. One of them is culture. We spoke about culture earlier, but let me ask that question directly. During times of great stress, like the pandemic that we were under for the last year, how important is culture to the operation of an organization like Delta?

 

Bill Lentsch  37:46

Culture is always important. It was particularly important over the last year for us because no one had seen what we were going through before. There was no playbook for this and, in many instances, we needed to rely heavily, almost exclusively on the quality of our people, their capability, and the culture that they operate in, which is a culture centered around serving humanity, making life better for people—whether it’s their co-worker or their customer—and giving our flight attendants, giving our agents—whether they’re on the phone or face-to-face with the customer—a license to do what they think is right to care for the customer under these extraordinary, very unusual, hard-to-define circumstances. We leaned heavily on the Delta culture. That is what ultimately allowed Delta to come through this pandemic and, as we near the backside of this pandemic, allows Delta to come through in a position of brand strength as we have never seen before. Culture was vital to that success.

 

Gary Bisbee  38:58

Thinking about teams, how do you think about teams and the importance of teams during a time like we went through with the pandemic?

 

Bill Lentsch  39:06

Having grown up as an athlete and knowing that there’s—at least in the sports that I played in—no one individual who ultimately affects the outcome of a game, it’s no different in the business that I am in. We are a very people-focused, very team-focused operation. That’s really important, particularly if things are changing so rapidly like they were over the course of the last 12 months. It’s really important that everyone feels like they are on the same team. Over the course of the last year, I haven’t heard anyone say, “That’s not my job.” Everyone has been focused on understanding what the needs of the customer are, what the needs of the business are, and making sure that we are collectively going at it to ultimately hit or exceed those expectations. If you don’t have good teamwork, if you don’t have good collaboration, this stuff might happen but it happens slowly and you find yourself as a real laggard here. You find yourself frustrating the customer. We’ve had to band together. We’ve been forced over this past year to band together as a team and ultimately work together in a world where there were no boundaries about your responsibilities. The only boundary was you need to identify the customers’ needs and work as a team to go get it.

 

Gary Bisbee  40:25

Last question, Bill. Again, it’s been a terrific interview. As I talk to leaders, you get various points of view on listening, but most of them say it’s really important to listen and ask the right questions. How do you think about listening?

 

Bill Lentsch  40:44

Great leaders demonstrate a couple of really great qualities. One is they are empathetic and two is they can demonstrate vulnerability. I’ve met very few if any great leaders who haven’t had those qualities about them. No one is perfect. There isn’t one individual who understands the situation completely, who knows all the answers in response to those situations. Being able to listen to those people—whether it’s your employees or customers who are out ultimately experiencing the product that you are designing and building—and being open to the feedback and making sure that is included as you make decisions. I’ve tried to practice good listening over the last year. I’ve realized the value of it because there were so many things going on in the space of the airline industry that I couldn’t have understood unless I spent time listening to customers or listening to employees and therefore could not have made an optimum decision for them. We were making decisions at a very quick pace so listening, being empathetic to your employees, being empathetic to your customers, and having the courage to say that you’re imperfect (therefore, you are vulnerable as a leader) and taking all of that and using it for your advantage as a leader to make better decisions. One of the most, if not the most important quality of a leader is to be a good listener.

 

Gary Bisbee  42:19

Bill, I very much enjoyed our conversation today. We appreciate your time. Thank you for being with us.

 

Bill Lentsch  42:25

Good to be with you, Gary. Thank you so much. All the best to you.

 

Gary Bisbee  42:30

New episodes will debut every Thursday. Join me in conversations to gain advice and wisdom from CEOs, presidents, and healthcare experts. Health care leadership is hard work, but it becomes more manageable as we learn from the remarkable lives and careers of our guests. I’ll see you there.

 

Subscribe for Updates​

For exclusive access to Think Medium content and program updates, subscribe here.