United Airlines and Delta are using data to make truly controversial decisions

How much can data persuade those who may not want to believe you? Some airlines think it can be effective.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

Data-driven decision-making?

Screenshot by ZDNet

Data analysis is the joy of our time.

Well, our working time.

It seems that businesses are spending as much money on bulking up their data capabilities as they are on, well, anything else.

I worry that this constant number-munching turns us all into permanently neurotic beings. Still, sometimes the numbers seem to help senior executives make decisions that they know won't be universally popular.

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby has often been regarded as the quintessential data-driven human. So when he announced that his airline's employees would all have to be vaccinated by Oct. 25 -- or they'd be fired -- it was instructive how he presented his case.

Speaking to MSNBC, he began: " We knew there'd be some negative reaction, and there has been. But my email inbox, particularly from employees, has been running about 10 to 1 of people just thanking us for doing it."

There's that instant quantification. Ninety% seem to be in favor. He'd only just got started.

"I didn't appreciate how many people there are, in our workforce -- and in the country -- who really know... they're looking at the data," he said. "They see all the same facts that all of us see. They know it's the right thing to do."

Only then did he suggest that the airline "would have done it anyway."

Yet, he leaned on the data first in order to make his case before adding: "For us, it's a safety issue."

Baited into declaring whether his decision was a way to increase passenger numbers, Kirby again went back to data: "Over 99% of the people who are in hospital or that are dying from COVID-19 are unvaccinated."

This helped him extrapolate to the idea that "[you're] about 300 times as likely to die of COVID-19 if you're unvaccinated. Once you have that statistic in your mind, at least to me, it's impossible not to require vaccinations."

Then, you might think that all other airlines would look at that data and reach the same conclusion. Yet American Airlines, Southwest, and Delta didn't.

The innately cynical might drift to wondering whether the fact that two of these airlines are based in Texas and the other in Georgia may have had something to do with that.

Then again, Delta did reach for a perhaps even more controversial measure with respect to COVID-19 -- and again leaned on data.

Last week, the airline announced that it'll increase the health insurance premiums for their unvaccinated employees by $200 a month.

CNBC reported the words of Delta CEO Ed Bastian in a memo sent to employees. Instead of declaring this measure as the right thing to do from a home humanistic, moral standpoint, Bastian offered cold data: "The average hospital stay for COVID-19 has cost Delta $50 000 per person."

He followed with: "This surcharge will be necessary to address the financial risk the decision not to vaccinate is creating for our company. In recent weeks since the rise of the B.1.617.2 variant, all Delta employees who have been hospitalized with COVID-19  were not fully vaccinated."

Some may wonder whether these CEOs merely searched for the appropriate data to serve their already-made decisions. One can imagine recalcitrants snorting that it's their body, their choice, and, tangentially, their expression of not caring what may happen to their fellow humans.

In Delta's case, there are surely troubling implications. Would the same sorts of penalties ever be levied on those with, say, a genetic history of cancer or diabetes? What if it could be proved that some ailment resulted from someone's personal choices -- smoking or drinking, for example?

Some will see these decisions as purely political. Because, in some twisted, infernal manner, saving lives seems to have become a symbol of which political faction you embrace.

We live in an extraordinary time, one where our business life is more and more infused with data. Yet, too many will deny the veracity of data in the rest of our lives because it doesn't suit their political worldview.

I'll confess that United's decision encouraged me to prefer United, should the occasion arise.

But it's the airline's expression of its attitude, rather than its data presentation, that persuades me.

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