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Delta Air Lines CEO Richard Anderson to Retire

02/03/2016 | 05:15pm US/Eastern

Richard Anderson, the chief executive who propelled Delta Air Lines Inc. to financial and operational dominance in his nine years leading the carrier, is retiring in May, and will become executive chairman of the board.

Mr. Anderson, 60 years old, will be succeeded as CEO by Ed Bastian, Delta's longtime president, the company said Wednesday.

Mr. Anderson has displayed a deft touch at Atlanta-based Delta, the nation's No. 2 airline by traffic. He arrived just after it emerged from bankruptcy-court protection, merged it with Northwest Airlines a year later, and built the combined company into a highly profitable machine with the highest market capitalization?$34 billion?of any U.S. airline.

The merger sparked a round of consolidation that helped get the U.S. industry into fighting form for the first time in decades.

Under his tutelage, Delta stitched together a global route network by taking stakes in foreign airlines, purchased an oil refinery and wooed customers with its sunny, nonunion airport agents and flight attendants and reliable service. Last year, the company had an unprecedented 161 days of no canceled flights, excluding its commuter affiliates.

Delta said Glen Hauenstein, executive vice president and chief revenue officer, would succeed the 58-year-old Mr. Bastian as president. Daniel Carp, currently Delta's nonexecutive chairman, said Wednesday that this succession plan has been several years in the making. The changes will take place May 2, the day Mr. Anderson, a native of Galveston, Texas, and former prosecutor, turns 61.

Mr. Carp, former CEO of Eastman Kodak Co., will remain on the board, but Frank Blake, a current Delta director and former CEO of Home Depot Inc., will become lead director of the board once Mr. Anderson becomes chairman, the company said.

Mr. Bastian joined Delta in 1998 on the finance side and left in 2005. He rejoined it later that year as chief financial officer, and was the chief restructuring officer through Delta's bankruptcy filing.

Mr. Bastian played a big role in Delta's acquisition of Northwest?the first of four megamergers in the U.S. airline industry?and in managing the combined carrier's integration.

While he had been in the running for the CEO job after the bankruptcy, Mr. Anderson, a 14-year veteran of Northwest, was recruited to Delta's new board, and in the end the directors tapped him for the top job. Mr. Bastian took the president's role and has been responsible, among other things, for Delta's expanding relationships with global airline partners, including Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd., Group Aeromexico SAB, Brazil's Gol Linhas Inteligentes SA and China Eastern Airlines Corp.

With his team, including the CFO, Mr. Bastian helped oversee a major debt reduction and large share buybacks at Delta and inched the company close to an investment-grade credit rating, which is expected this year.

Mr. Hauenstein, who will become president in May, joined Delta in 2005 after a career at Continental Airlines and a stint at Italy's Alitalia. During his tenure, Delta has added more than 70 destinations to its network, revamped its frequent-flier plan and created hubs at New York's La Guardia Airport and in Seattle.

As CEO, Mr. Anderson has shown a penchant for long-term thinking. Delta's 2008 merger with Northwest spurred the rest of the industry into a round of consolidation that has given rise to new ideas about building sustainable businesses that aren't prey to boom-and-bust cycles. Delta also handled the complex consolidation process better than some of its rivals, managed to retain its mostly nonunion status and had the first-mover advantage of being bigger.

He also hasn't been afraid to go in his own direction. His refinery purchase in 2012 is just one example. The acquisition of 49% of British carrier Virgin Atlantic is another. Recently, Delta pulled out of the industry's major trade group, saying it could save $5 million in annual dues and find "a more efficient way of communicating in Washington" on issues it finds important.

Delta is the only major carrier to oppose a new House of Representatives bill to separate air-traffic control from the Federal Aviation Administration. The CEO also ran a yearslong battle to try to change the rules of the U.S. Export-Import Bank.

A year ago, Delta pointed its guns at three state-owned Persian Gulf airlines, accusing them of using $40 billion of subsidies, given them unfair advantage as they ramp up their services to the U.S. On that fight, Delta got rare support from rivals American Airlines Group Inc. and United Continental Holdings Inc. But so far, the U.S. government hasn't taken any action on the U.S. carriers' demands that air-treaties be amended or the Gulf carriers' access to the U.S. frozen.

Delta shocked its longtime partner Alaska Airlines, a unit of Alaska Air Group Inc., in 2013 by starting to build up its own flights in the airline's hometown of Seattle. "This is all just business," Mr. Anderson said in an interview last year. "We're pragmatic."

Write to Susan Carey at susan.carey@wsj.com

Corrections & Amplifications: Ed Bastian, who will be the next CEO of Delta Air Lines, left the carrier in 2005 and rejoined it later that year. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that he left Delta in 2000. (Feb. 3, 2016)

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