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80,000 reasons why Delta is the best American airline to work for

Reading Time: 8 minutes

For the average consumer, companies in the airline industry are essentially interchangeable. We want to get from point A to point B at the most convenient time and at the lowest rate. Flights are merely the means to our end destination, nothing more to it.

But what about the men and women walking up and down the aisles handing out beverages? Or the people in the orange vests loading your luggage? The pilot you trust with your safety? I may be going out on a limb, but I doubt for these individuals the airlines are all that interchangeable.

As a college athlete, I can tell you that while winning percentage and accolades may have initially caught my attention in the school selection process, my decision in the end was based on culture and coaching – where was I going to get the best experience and treated with the most respect?

So what has earned Delta Air Lines the No. 30 slot on Fortune’s “Most Admired Companies,” and No. 1 in the airline industry for the fifth time in the past six years? Just ask their employees.

A company and culture of trust

Andrea Ratfield began at Delta Air Lines in her early 20s as a flight attendant. After advancing to an onboard leadership position, within that role she was occasionally allowed to sit in the cockpit during takeoffs and landing. Ratfield realized with the encouragement of her colleagues that she wanted one thing: to become a pilot. Following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 Ratfield took advantage of Delta’s voluntary leave, completing her pilot’s license in that year and returning to Delta, this time as a pilot. She became a living tribute to the growth potential within Delta, and hopes to pass on that same awe and determination in the flight attendants she now flies.

A Harvard Business Journal article places an emphasis on developing culture, not just “fixing” it overnight. Delta CEO Richard Anderson came to Delta during a merger with Northwest in 2008. He was faced with the challenge of acclimating Northwest employees to Delta’s culture, a hurdle due to the heavy presence of unions in Northwest and the wide communication divide this caused between employees and management. Anderson had to develop a culture of trust in order to unite his company.

How did he do it?

He built a strong relationship between employees and management, eliminating the “us vs. them” mentality by providing employees with first-rate training, upgraded equipment, and improved compensation and benefits. Within two years of Anderson as CEO and the changes he implemented, employees (except for pilots who use unions to stay on the same level of pilots in other companies) voted to eliminate unions. This made Delta one of the few non-unionized airlines in the entire industry.

And with trust comes a stronger, more loyal employee base. Employer satisfaction has led to a “lifer” culture at Delta, with many 40-45 year employees and multiple-generation family employees as well.  Of the 100 employees inducted into the Chairman’s Club (Delta’s most prestigious employee recognition program), they averaged nearly 21 years of service. In contrast, the average U.S. worker stays at their job for 4.6 years.

You know how they say you can tell a lot about a person by who they spend their time with? Well, I don’t trust people that don’t have old friends. It just rubs me the wrong way – why has nobody stuck around? The same goes for any company I look to work for. I trust 21 years of service and therefore trust that Delta values their employees.

Work is about more than just the 9-5

A large contributor to employee motivation arises from choice. Rather than just being told what to do, a sense of autonomy or opportunity can improve employee morale. Perhaps the most striking example is Delta’s Honor Guard. The Honor Guard is made up of Delta employee volunteers, opting to work outside their scheduled hours to perform the humble duty of safely delivering fallen military men and women home.

The last time I worked for free? A week-long youth basketball camp in the horror that is an unairconditioned gym during July of a particularly hot DC summer. I did this because I love basketball and I love watching kids fall in love with the game. You don’t work for free unless there is something inside of you saying yes.

So in all types of weather, all hours and days of the week, and holidays, the Honor Guard stands tall and solemn, proud to have the opportunity to show their gratitude to the more than 3,000 remains they have served. Delta could have made these flights part of the schedule, just another shift. But instead they provide  their employees with the opportunity to contribute beyond the day-to-day to something greater than just a routine flight.

Employees’ work is valued and important

We often hear great teams and companies touting the coined phrase, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” as a means of crediting even the lowest ranked employee or the most mundane of tasks.

As an athlete who has an affinity for assists and a solid floor game over points, it is a phrase that has kept me up at night, hoping and praying that it could possibly be true. Because it means – you are important, keep working hard, your work matters.

Well, after a historic year in profits in 2015, Delta decided to “put its money where its mouth is” by paying its 80,000 employees $1.5 billion in profit sharing, the largest in U.S. corporate history. On the individual level, this is about 21 percent of an employee’s eligible 2015 income. Not only that, the airline decided to break one more record by creating a 50-foot tall greeting card in front of the company’s General Office, containing each of the 80,000 employees’ names. From the tangible payouts to the sentimental expressions of gratitude, Delta’s corporate offices understand the importance and contribution of each and every employee.

Why did I just talk about Delta Air Lines for 700 words?

Because my worst nightmare is to spend 40 hours a week staring at the clock. I am an emotionally driven person who cares not only about what I am doing, but why I am doing it and who I am doing it for. Throughout my career I have played for many teams, under dozens of coaches, and alongside hundreds of players. It is not a coincidence that my most successful teams and my best experiences are when my relationships with coaches and teammates were grounded in respect, trust, and enthusiasm. Delta Air Lines has made 80,000 individuals feel vital to the success of a nearly $6 billion corporation.

Yes, you work for your company. Now ask yourself – does your company work for you?