Film Review: “The Steepest Climb” spotlights Delta Air Lines journey amid pandemic

by | Oct 9, 2023

When a plane takes off, I’m usually asleep. But on a recent trip, I browsed the in-flight entertainment system and came across a new film The Steepest Climb directed by Joshua Seftel. It documents the story of Delta Air Lines during the global pandemic of 2020-2021.

I  thought it would be PR or corporate puffery. But I was surprised with its thoughtful story arc and emotional depth. The result is not just an important contribution to American economic history. The film helps document the response and resilience of the American people. Important lessons upon which we can draw when we encounter obstacles down the road.

Key Moments & Takeaways

The film begins with pilot Chris Dennis who shares a heartfelt story about leaving his plane. It was the onset of the pandemic, and Delta was parking its planes on a runway because demand for flying had dropped precipitously. Delta parked 567 planes at the height of the pandemic, putting its fleet “to sleep.” It was unlike anything Dennis had ever seen before, and he penned a note to document what he witnessed and placed it in the plane. This story comes poetically full circle at the end of the film – when Dennis is reunited with his letter (thanks to another Delta employee who found it).

Delta’s success in the years before the pandemic are revelatory. The “good years” serve as a juxtaposition of the ominous global health crisis. “We had become the on-time machine,” said one Delta executive. Warren Buffet was its largest shareholder. Ed Bastian, CEO, was a featured speaker at CES in Las Vegas (Bastian returns to CES at the end of the film in another close-the-loop moment in which he announces free Wi-Fi for customers).

Here Comes COVID

Ambassador Andrew Young (a former Delta board member) was one of the first to bring up COVID during a conversation with Delta executives. His concerns became a reality in February 2020.

Delta soon canceled flights to China (they had worked hard to open these routes in the first place). Delta setup a command center to deal with the unfolding crisis.

Bastian was enduring both professional and personal challenges. He lost his own mother during this period.

“Crises don’t build character. Crises reveal character,” said Bastian.

You’d think that quote came from Winston Churchill amid World War II. But alas, the global pandemic turned some corporate CEOs like Bastian into folk heroes (and others who won’t be named here into villains). In a vulnerable moment, Bastian admits that he was petrified and privately very nervous.

March 11, 2020 was a red-letter day. The President called Bastian and asked what he was doing that night. It was a signal that travel to Europe would be prohibited, an existential threat to the entire air line industry. Delta was experiencing its highest call volume and issuing as much as $50 million in refunds per day. They were enduring a liquidity crisis. Delta converted its museum in Atlanta into a call center to help deal with the surge in cancelations.

Customers & Employees Speak

I like that customers were featured. Too often documentaries focus on key participants or decision makers without “putting a face” on ripple effects.

The filmmakers spotlighted actual customers and how the pandemic created setbacks (we learn about what happened to each customer in the end of the film). One customer bought Delta chairs for his house and watched the safety video on TV. He pretended to fly.

Delta employees are featured, and their love-of-company shines through. Delta employees have been known for cherishing their firm. In the 1980s, they came together and bought a plane for the company: “The Spirit of Delta” also known as Project 767.

When Delta declared bankruptcy in September 2005, employees came together. They protested a hostile bid from US Air. Delta rented a department store in downtown Atlanta as a way to build morale and protect the firm.

The Right Moves

  • During the pandemic, Delta created volunteer opt out programs to prevent layoffs and furloughs. Sadly, Delta experienced deaths in its workforce. Its employees were at personal risk of contracting the virus.
  • Delta was the first to issue a mask policy. No mask, no fly. Before it was a federal mandate.
  • They also blocked the middle seat so that customers would have more space. I wish this policy was still in effect!

Black Lives Matter

  • Amid the pandemic, the George Floyd murder brought forth racial tension and systemic racial inequalities.
  • Delta launched its “Keeping Altitude” program that commits to promote black employees to leadership positions consistent with the 20% of its employees who are black.

Servant Leadership

  • Delta became an essential company. Its employees were essential employees amid the pandemic.
  • Delta flew medical workers around the country.
  • Delta Cargo’s revenue surged from 1-2% of total revenue to 20% (thanks to moving PPP and other equipment). Cargo nets were put over chairs to make room for equipment. Delta Cargo shipped the first vaccines from Brussels to Detroit in late January 2021.
  • The company turned its museum into a vaccination center. It administered the vaccine to employees and citizens, with a pace of 5k people per day.
  • As the vaccines arrived and pandemic receded, it was time for Delta planes to be “woken up.” But that’s a process: You have to train pilots, re-boot planes.

On the craft of filmmaking

The filmmakers had access to behind-the-scenes footage of Delta and its operations. The result is a beautiful blend of moving & inspiring images.

Seeing this chapter of American (corporate) history unfold is a stirring reminder of what separates the good from the great. And how we as Americans must come together to help one another, especially during the turbulent times.