Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian had an important message for employees this week: The highly contagious nature of the delta variant meant more of them needed to get vaccinated.

He didn’t use those exact words.

“Over the past few weeks, the fight has changed with the rise of the B. 1.617.2 variant — a very aggressive form of the virus,” he wrote, using the scientific term. In May, the World Health Organization assigned names to key variants using letters of the Greek alphabet.

Most haven’t stuck around long enough, or wreaked enough havoc, to become household names. Delta — unfortunately for Delta — was different. The variant accounted for 93.4 percent of new infections in the United States by the end of July.

In his note Wednesday, Bastian also referred to “the most recent virus variants” and simply “the variant” — the term he told the Wall Street Journal he preferred to use last month. His message said that employees who do not get vaccinated will have to be tested weekly and pay a $200 monthly insurance surcharge.

“The Delta family holds our brand close as part of our professionalism and all that we stand for,” spokesman Morgan Durrant said in an email. “And while we haven’t seen any serious confusion out there as a result of the WHO naming convention, there’s also the catchy scientific name of the variant that deserves to have its profile lifted through all of this as well.”

The delta dodge has also made it to the air.

Emily Gadek, a podcast producer who lives in Oakland, Calif., said on Twitter that she was on a flight from San Francisco to Detroit last week and “it was genuinely hilarious how hard they worked not to say it.”

She said the effort was particularly evident during announcements about keeping face coverings in place: “It’s especially important to remain masked due to … [dramatic pause] the variant that’s circulating.”

Communications pros were quick to praise Delta’s marketing teams for the approach. Chris McCollough, associate professor of public relations and head of the department of communication at Jacksonville State University in Alabama, said in an email that Bastian’s message worked on two levels.

“First, it is clear that the communication team wants to emphasize the distinction of the company from the current health crisis,” he said. “Second, they are implicitly conveying to employees and consumers alike that they are taking the situation seriously, including how they distinguish their company name from the current variant.”


Delta Air Lines will require employees to be vaccinated or face weekly testing and a $200 monthly surcharge for health insurance.

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But in response to questions from The Washington Post, Durrant said the public relations team could not take credit for the variant solution.

“This was a natural decision from leaders and really everyone across Delta as the naming convention of all the covid variants arrived at the fourth one,” he said in an email.

While the airline hasn’t spent much time discussing its approach to communicating about the new variant, it has embraced the alphabetical term as far back as late June.

Delta’s chief health officer, Henry Ting, responded to someone on Twitter on June 29 who called the naming coincidence unfair, given the carrier’s pandemic-era practices such as blocking out middle seats after other airlines had stopped.

“We prefer to call it the B. 1.617.2 variant since that is so much more simple to say and remember,” Ting replied.

When Bastian appeared Thursday on “CBS This Morning” to discuss the new vaccination policy, co-host Gayle King asked if the name has caused problems for the airline.

“I don’t refer to the original variant name,” he said. “If anything, I call it ‘the darn variant.’ ”