2022
Corporate DC >$1B

Delta Air Lines

Plansponsor of the year winner icon WINNER
Atlanta, Georgia
Josh Jessup
General Manager, Global Retirement and Mobility
  • Plan
    401(k)
  • Total Plan Assets
    $15B
  • Number of Participants
    69,314
  • Participation Rate
    91%
  • Average Deferral Rate
    8.9%
  • Default Deferral Rate
    6%
  • Default Investment
    Delta target-date funds (from BlackRock Investments)
  • Automatic Enrollment
  • Automatic Escalation
  • Employer Contribution
    100% match of up to 6%, 3% non-elective contribution
  • Providers
    Recordkeeper: Fidelity Investments; Adviser: Rocaton
  • Financial Wellness Educators
    Fidelity Investments, Edelman Financial Engines, Operation Hope


Delta Air Lines has long maintained a goal of helping every 401(k) plan participant retire on schedule. And its efforts to achieve that have been fueled by corporate earnings. In 2020, for instance, the company distributed $1.6 billion in profit-sharing payments.

Yet the airline, headquartered in Atlanta, wasn’t counting on the COVID-19 pandemic to stall so many employees’ progress. Reduced work schedules and other financial woes caused 25,000 of Delta’s 69,000-plus plan participants to take a CARES [Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security] Act withdrawal, says Josh Jessup, general manager for global retirement and mobility. “This totaled more than $1 billion out of their 401(k) savings,” he says.

Further, from ongoing wellbeing surveys it ran in 2021, Delta learned that 35% of employees said financial stress was affecting their mental health—and, they feared, their prospects for retirement.

“We have a people-first culture,” Jessup says. “We make a concerted effort to connect with our people to ensure they have what they need when they need it.”

So Delta, along with recordkeeper Fidelity Investments, built a custom dashboard to assess the extent of the problem. “We examined combined retirement data—401(k) and pension—across demographics such as location, job type, race/ethnicity, gender, income and loan status,” Jessup says. “We also reset our retirement readiness baseline.” This they did by conducting a retirement income analysis, projecting how the CARES Act withdrawals would degrade those participants’ retirement readiness. “Given our diverse workforce, including many employee groups who aren’t tethered to desks, we needed these quantitative and qualitative listening posts to meet people where they were at—both literally and figuratively.”

Their analysis yielded a three-strategy plan.

For Delta workers who were struggling financially now, the sponsor offered immediate help, outside the plan, Jessup says. With partner Operation Hope, it made 10 on-site coaches available to give free financial counselling on reducing debt, improving one’s credit score and other pressing money needs.

So all employees might improve their financial health, the company offered incentives worth up to $100 for completing financial wellness check-ups, attending webinars and meeting one-on-one with Fidelity representatives, he says. It also called on its Wellbeing Champions—40 frontline volunteers trained to inform their peers about the company financial tools and programs available to them—to step up their educational efforts.

At quarterly trainings for the Champions, the sponsor team welcomes their questions and suggestions, plus feedback from their peers in the field, says Tatiana Bennett, Delta’s lead program manager for financial wellbeing.

“During our trainings, we have our partners[—such as representatives from Fidelity—]join in and educate the Champions about the website and [participant] tools. This [education] helps both the Champions and employees prepare for retirement and know whether they’re retirement ready,” she says.

For its second strategy, boost saving through plan design, Delta upgraded the eligibility of 7,000 workers—its Ready Reserves, who work in part-time, flex or fill-in roles. Now in Delta’s main plan, these workers can save 15% if they meet the 6% employer match—i.e., 12% plus an automatic contribution of 3%, Jessup says.

To raise engagement through targeted help, strategy three, the sponsor used data to segment employees according to overall financial needs and what actions—e.g., withdrawing money or lessening their deferrals—the pandemic may have prompted them to take. From here, the sponsor created communications. “To reach our on-the-go workforce, we took a multi-channel approach. This included email, a revamped benefits intranet, social media, town halls, one-on-one appointments and targeted messaging on NetBenefits, Fidelity’s 401(k) portal for employees,” Jessup says.

The results of these efforts have been significant, the sponsor says: Over 2021, 93% of participants contributed 6% or more—up from 87% in December 2020—and 77% were saving at least 15%. Eighty percent of employees called a Fidelity representative for counsel; and 30,000-plus deferral increases were made.

Beyond counteracting effects of the pandemic, Delta has been working toward benefits equity. The company proactively engages with its diverse workforce on a broad range of financial topics, retirement being just one. When Delta examined its data to see how student loan debt might be affecting participants’ retirement readiness, it noted discrepancies across some demographics.

“If we’re not connecting with certain segments of the population, we want to make sure we find ways to [correct this],” Jessup says, referring to Delta’s effort underway to engage with its African American employees.

“Where we see some of their contributions is at a lower level than other segments of our population,” Jessup says. “We are meeting with our business resource groups to understand how we can better connect with [those employees to] find out what challenges they’re facing and how we can help support them.”

Karen Wittwer and Noah Zuss

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