Paper Trail: Delta’s Allison Ausband Chronicles Her Path From Journalism to In-Flight Service


Image: Felipe Vargas

Delta Air Lines’ senior vice-president of In-Flight Service, Allison Ausband, shares how her background in journalism is anything but yesterday’s news.

As told by Allison Ausband to Valerie Silva 

Journalists are taught that to become effective communicators, they must first hone the more thankless skill of listening. Ironically, I learned this lesson long before ever setting foot at the University of Georgia, where I would, in 1980, enroll in journalism straight out of high school.

The small town of McDonough, Georgia, where I grew up, was home to no more than 2,900 citizens, and I knew nearly all of them – not least because my father was their mayor. I’d watch him in the town square exchanging hellos, listen to him in front of large groups and overhear him on the telephone as he helped someone who’d called at 9 o’clock at night with a problem. Big or small, he was all ears.

Today, McDonough’s population is upward of 26,000 – just a little larger than the group of flight attendants I lead at Delta Air Lines, who, I might add, are some of the best in the world. And like my father – who, at 86 years old, remains the town’s mayor – I bring with me a willingness to listen to every single member of my community, practicing a similar open-door (and inbox) policy, with a huge sense of responsibility and accountability to those I serve every day.

I bring with me a willingness to listen to every single member of my community, practicing a similar open-door (and inbox) policy.

Delta, unlike most American carriers, benefits from these direct relationships and a culture that thrives on servant leadership and valuing diverse perspectives. Of course, employee issues arrive at our airline like at anyone else’s, but we make a point of responding to them differently.

In the case of a large operational disruption that happened a few years ago, 1,400 flights were grounded. If you were traveling with us during that time, you know it was rough, but you may not have realized that it also created havoc for our flight crews. Things were out of sync, their days were extended and many couldn’t get home to their families. Those were some very difficult days, and we refused to let it happen ever again. We quickly arranged listening sessions with flight attendants and gave them a space to express their concerns. Thirty days later, we instated work rule changes for irregular operations that involve compensation, new scheduling protocols and more. Our culture empowers action. And one of our top priorities is creating opportunities for Delta people to share feedback.

With a team sprawled across the world, I need to make sure the communication is flowing both ways. I share videos, attend employee-involvement group sessions and send weekly e-mails in an effort to form lasting connections in a professional setting that doesn’t often allow for conventional face-to-face office meetings. Of course, any flight is always an awesome opportunity to listen to our flight attendants – they keep me straight on their priorities.

When crafting these communications, I often think back to my time writing scripts in journalism school and to that mental checklist that was instilled in me as a student: Be succinct, be truthful, be relatable. Being involved at the University of Georgia, I go back often to visit my alma mater and tell the dean and students that everything I learned during my time there, I am still using wholeheartedly today to ensure my message resonates with my audience.

I wouldn’t trade my career at Delta or the education that preceded it for anything, but it definitely wasn’t what I had in mind fresh out of journalism school in 1983. After turning down a job at Turner Broadcasting, I went to work at a local radio station, where I wore many hats – from disc jockey in the morning to advertising salesperson in the afternoon. I loved it, but after some time I craved something bigger.

Being in Georgia, I had a number of Fortune 500 companies to consider. After doing my homework on each company’s values and cultures, I set my sights on Delta, where I figured I could put my communications background to use in their public relations department. I wrote up my resume and sent it off straightaway.

I was swiftly rejected. At the time, it was a major disappointment, but today I wear that rejection letter like a badge of honor – in fact, I look at it nearly every day, since it’s framed above my desk in my office. The letter explained that administrative positions, like those in PR, were only filled by promotions within the company, so the only way I could get into Delta at the time was to take on a frontline position. So I did, as a flight attendant – a job I held for six years before climbing the corporate ladder, so to speak.

The more I flew, the more I thought, I want to learn more about Delta, and I want to give more of myself to the airline. I still refer back to my time on the front line to help me think through issues that I’m faced with as a leader today. And to make sure my “research” isn’t out of date, I make it a point to keep up my qualifications as a flight attendant and work several flights every year.

In one case, I was approached by a member of my team about the design of the uniform’s neck scarf. The scarves have this bad habit of rotating around the neck and then ending up with the knot at the bottom. Sounds minor, but it is frustrating – I know because I experienced it firsthand while working a flight. To properly advocate for my team, I need to understand what they’re going through. As for the scarves, we enlisted the help of Lands’ End and the Savannah College of Art and Design to redesign the accessory.

While I paid my dues on the front line, I never did make my way to the PR department – at least not officially. But with a community of 24,000 incredible flight attendants, it’s my responsibility, every day, to make sure our vision is clear and our message is delivered.

Other times, I’m speaking to a boardroom of men and need to work really hard to find my voice. It’s something I’m still working on, and as recently as three years ago, I had a mentor whisper in my ear during a meeting, “Lean in. Speak up. You know this topic.” I had read my fair share of Sheryl Sandberg, so I knew what he was talking about, but being called out in the moment had a huge impact on me.

It isn’t just about gender; diversity in all its forms can point out our own blind spots and unconscious biases.

As a woman in my position, there is a huge opportunity to support other women. And I think Delta is doing a really good job at it – it has made Fortune’s “Best Workplaces for Women” for two consecutive years. But it isn’t just about gender; diversity in all its forms can point out our own blind spots and unconscious biases, so it’s important to give as many people as possible a seat at the table.

Over the past two years, I’ve been at the helm of Delta’s anti-human-trafficking initiatives, which seek to raise awareness among our 80,000 employees, over three-quarters of whom have already been trained to observe the signs of trafficking and take action both on the ground and in the air. Just recently, we had two Delta mechanics eating at a fast-food restaurant over lunch who were able to identify, report and help two young girls who were being trafficked.

One of the most significant things we do for survivors of human trafficking is offer them apprenticeships. We understand that the effects of being trafficked don’t end once victims are found, because many are then faced with emotional hurdles, drug-related problems and even felony charges. The fact that Delta is able to give them a leg up, be part of their reintegration and help them find their voice is something I’m especially proud of.

It’s a dark topic, but an important one that needs to be addressed. And in that way, it feels like I am very much doing what I had initially set out to do. If I were a journalist, I’d be doing investigative work, tackling difficult topics and shedding light on human-rights issues. At Delta, I’m just approaching it from a different angle.

“Paper Trail” was originally published in the 9.4 September/October issue of APEX Experience magazine.