New Delta CEO’s goal: keep company “fresh”

As Ed Bastian prepares to take the controls of Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines as CEO on Monday, he said one focus is how to keep the 85-year old company’s image “fresh.”

Bastian steps into big shoes as he succeeds Richard Anderson. As Delta’s CEO for nine years, Anderson took the airline from financial recovery mode after a trip through bankruptcy to an industry powerhouse that is closely watched around the world.

Bastian, who had been Delta’s president, said he had a close partnership with Anderson. But at a media conference hosted by the airline Friday, he added: “I am a different person than Richard. I’ve got a different style and a different voice.”

Anderson remains chairman of Delta’s board but has already moved to Houston. Bastian said they still talk two or three times a week.

“I do have different ideas and different thoughts,” Bastian said. “We’re an eighty-five year-old company, but we have a changing customer demographic and we have to appeal to the needs of a new generation. And that’s I think one of the things you’re going to see a lot from me, is ‘How do we keep our brand fresh? How do we keep our technology fresh? ”

Bastian said keeping the brand fresh is also important internally, noting that half of Delta’s employees will be millennials by the end of this decade.

Friday’s media day also saw Delta announce:

— A deal with biometric ID firm Clear to offer discounts on faster screening to Delta frequent fliers. It didn’t say how big the discounts would be, but the regular price for Clear is $179 a year. The government’s PreCheck program to speed screening is $85 for five years. “With Clear, customers can go directly to the front of the TSA PreCheck queue,” Bastian said. The promotion comes amid longer security lines in Atlanta and other airports. Delta is also buying a 5 percent stake in Clear.

— Plans to roll out a new premium economy class on international flights. Delta said the new product will differ from its Comfort+ upgraded coach seating, with more legroom and a leg rest and enhanced service. Part of the target market, one executive said, is the “mass affluent.”

— An order of 37 more A321 mid-size jets from Airbus. That follows Thursday’s announcement that Delta will buy 75 smaller Bombardier CS100 jets.

Bastian said he shares Anderson’s views on some controversial issues in the aviation industry, including the push by Delta and other major U.S. airlines against what they say are unfair government subsidies supporting certain Middle East carriers.

Anderson has been vocal in arguments pushing for the U.S. government to review so-called “Open Skies” aviation agreements with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Bastian said he is “equally frustrated and equally engaged.”

Bastian indicated he will continue the company’s path of putting increasing focus on high-spending customers to boost profits. He said the most critical part of Delta’s transformation over the past decade is the decision that “we are not going to compete as a commodity provider.”

“We’ve become a premium airline, delivering premium service and getting paid a premium value for that,” Bastian said.

And he made no apologies to frequent fliers who are frustrated with changes to Delta’s SkyMiles program.

“I realize that there is a component of our loyalty program of people that are a little frustrated that what they used to expect to what is actually happening today,” Bastian said. Amid complaints about struggles to redeem SkyMiles for free flights, he said mileage redemptions are in fact up, while the average number of miles redeemed per ticket is down.

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