Ten Questions with Justin Solomon
March 20th, 2020 | By Mike Raven
I had the pleasure of meeting up with Justin at the Delta Flight Museum in Atlanta, Georgia. We spent time together in this remarkable place to talk over the interview and take some exceptional photos. Thanks to the team from Delta Air Lines and Isabel O’Cathey, IMI’s Beverage Project Manager.
Q.1 Hi, Justin. To start, would you give our readers a bit of your Food & Beverage background?
With over 16 years of experience in the hospitality, tourism and government services sectors, I lead beverage strategy for Delta Air Lines. My experience ranges from specialized service solutions to luxury dining, and from catering to my most recent role as Product and Experience Manager of Food & Beverage for Delta Sky Clubs. I also hold several certifications related to the beverage and hospitality industry.
Q.2 What is Delta’s strategy for beverage?
We want to transform the way our customers look at their beverage experience. Not only do we provide world-class hospitality at 35,000 feet, but we also take a unique approach to our beverage program by providing a thoughtful experience around the beverage itself. In 2020 and beyond, we will continue to examine the customer experience, connect our customers to new, premium products, and drive toward continual improvement by listening to feedback from our customers and employees. This year, you will see Delta test and roll out new products and services that are designed to enhance the beverage experience received in the air.
Q.3 Delta’s done a great job of elevating its in-flight experience. Can you describe some of the innovations?
One recent innovation is our reinvented international Main Cabin service, which launched in November 2019. Free “Welcome Aboard” cocktails featuring Bellinis to start, hot towel service, mix-and-match options for premium appetizers, and larger entrees are just a few of the ways we are differentiating our international Main Cabin service. Since the beginning, we had a design team comprised of more than 20 flight attendants who’ve been leading the charge, rigorously testing and refining the service along the way to get it just right. We tailor our offerings to appeal to evolving customer preferences — we’ve even been testing a hard seltzer product and look forward to rolling it out just in time for warmer weather!
Q.4 I would imagine there are space considerations with an onboard beverage program. How does that impact the decision process?
Space considerations onboard an aircraft really challenge the team to think creatively about how products are provisioned and determine which selections make sense. Delta’s portfolio of aircraft is one of the most diverse in the world, which requires dozens of different planograms and placement considerations. One size does not fit all in this aspect, so we must consider this every step of the way.
Q.5 What are the challenges in implementing a beverage program onboard versus the Sky Clubs? Do you try and coincide some of the Sky Clubs offerings with the in-flight offerings?
Delta is always looking to elevate the customer experience by innovating and activating great products. We work closely across departments to understand the strategy and needs of each area, intentionally looking to tie programs together where possible. In the past, we have carried “family brand” products onboard and in Delta Sky Clubs. For the first time this year, we have launched a comprehensive program that addresses product needs both onboard and in Clubs. We want our customers’ entire travel journey to be seamless, so it’s essential to design a holistic program on the ground and in the air. We also are mindful of our global operation and always keep it in mind when making enhancements to our in-flight beverage program. Designing a wine and beverage program that streamlines processes and pairs well with our culinary menus is key. We want our customers to have a great experience no matter where their final destination may be.
Q.6 What are the major issues facing the airline industry, from a beverage perspective?
At Delta, we have a strong focus on environmental sustainability across all sectors of the business. Weight and material of product packaging, how products are produced and procured, logistics, etc. are always at the forefront of our decision-making. We are consistently searching for ways that we can strategically partner with manufacturers to achieve Delta’s sustainability goals.
Q.7 How important are the beverage partners in supporting and building a program?
Beverage partners are vitally important to our continuation of success. We pride ourselves on innovation and revolutionizing the way we go to market, so bringing innovative and industry-leading partners into the mix is essential. We also proactively identify and build relationships with high-quality small, minority and women-owned businesses.
Q.8 The environment is a big issue. What environmental factors come into the decision-making process?
As I mentioned, sustainability is key to our decision-making. In 2018, we announced the removal of single-use plastic items, including stir sticks, wrappers, utensils and straws from our aircraft, which is expected to eliminate more than 300,000 pounds in plastic waste each year — that’s more than the weight of two Boeing 757 aircraft. And we are continually looking for ways to do even more across the entire business, including our beverage program.
Q.9 I know Delta Air Lines has a couple of key pillars: diversity, inclusion, employee engagement and the environment. How do these impact your beverage program?
Our values and social responsibility efforts are always considered when we select and promote products that go onboard. We are committed to proactively identifying and building relationships with high-quality small, minority, diverse-owned and women-owned businesses, like Brown Estate, the first and only black-owned estate winery in California’s Napa Valley, which went onboard last year. We also go through a rigorous product evaluation process to ensure we are positioning Delta’s Beverage Program in a way that our employees and customers can be proud of.
Q.10 Delta has always been a big supporter of a variety of causes (such as breast cancer awareness, among others). How do these initiatives manifest themselves in a beverage program, both onboard and in the Clubs?
We are always excited to activate special limited-time offers for causes that Delta’s proud to partner with, including the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF) for over 15 years, the American Cancer Society and many more. For example, last year we sold products like pink lemonade — which could be spruced up into a pink martini — and pink headsets onboard and in Delta Sky Clubs, with proceeds benefitting BCRF. It’s always rewarding to design different initiatives that raise awareness among our customers, giving them a chance to give back to the communities where we live, work and serve. Another example from earlier this year was when we debuted Atlanta-based Gate City’s Freedom Fighter IPA onboard most domestic Delta One routes. All January, we featured the beer, which was designed to help raise awareness for our fight against human trafficking and support the community work of two Atlanta organizations, Out of the Darkness and Wellspring Living.