Delta’s chief operating officer, Jim Whitehurst, has become a regular on Capitol Hill, making the rounds of the corridors of power, lobbying for the airlines’ new plan for FAA funding. This is something of a curiosity since he’s only 38 and has only been in the industry since 2002. Usually the airlines like to send a grey-thatched senior statesman type or trademark industry figure like Bob Crandall. Whitehurst, in town to lead the Air Transport Association’s lobbying of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee the other day, has a simple explanation: “all of the other ATA executives were busy in the day that the first hearing was scheduled, and I was the only guy available”.
He’s too modest and the truth is more complicated: Whitehurst is a numbers guy. A former Boston Consulting Group director and a veteran of other network-based enterprises, he’s been able to keep these often detail-oriented congressional hearings focused on policy issues, avoiding the grating name-calling and class-warfare with business aviation that has marred other airline legislative campaigns. He explains, saying “I’m a policy wonk. I’m into numbers and I like to let them lead the debate.” This mastery of subject matter makes it a lot easier to be diplomatic.
Diplomacy is something Whitehurst will need if he takes over Delta when chief executive Jerry Grinstein leaves later this summer. Whitehurst, along with CFO ED Bastian, is one of the two internal candidates to succeed Grinstein at the nation’s number three. He’s one of us, though: after five years of struggle, deficits, layoffs, paycuts and the wrenching 18-month bankruptcy reorganisation that Delta just left this spring, he loves the airline business. “It’s like nothing else I’ve been in”, he says, adding, “It gets into your blood and very quickly”.