People have often asked Ron Black how he has lasted long enough to become the most senior employee for Delta Air Lines.
His typical answer? “I just get up and go into work every day.”
The Fayette County resident learned late last year via email from the human resources manager for his department that he had become number one on the worldwide seniority list for Delta, which has about 80,000 employees around the world. It took him just under 60 years to reach that mark.
The course of his career, which has taken several interesting turns, started Jan. 1, 1959. That’s when Black was hired as a ramp agent in Knoxville after a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps and a couple of years as a student at the University of Tennessee.
He started less than a year before the airline bought its first jet, a DC-8. “All the planes had propellers then,” he said. “I have to explain to some of the younger people what those are.”
Delta’s operations in Knoxville were very different from Atlanta, and that actually helped Black, who stayed there for his first 15 years with the company.
“It was a small station, so the ramp agents there learned everything,” he said. “It was a really good experience. We learned the whole airline operation except for what the mechanics do.”
Black eventually moved into reservations, which in Knoxville meant there was “a swinging door behind the ticket counter,” he said. It was not uncommon for an agent to process the ticket at the counter, then take the passenger’s bags and load them on the plane.
One of the highlights of his first decade of service was the opportunity to meet C.E. Woolman, the founder and longtime head of Delta, shortly before Woolman’s death. Black went to Woolman’s office one day when he was in the area and asked his secretary if he could meet him, and he received a surprisingly warm welcome.
“He invited me in and I sat down in his office,” said Black. “He put his feet up on his desk and we talked for a while.”
Black transferred to Atlanta in 1973 and as the airline evolved technologically, he saw the possibilities for himself as well as his employer. “I tried to move into IT as soon as it came along because it seemed a good fit. I was always fascinated with computers.”
He got his wish when the reservations department got its first IBM desktop computer. A supervisor who knew Black had a PC from Radio Shack at home put him to work on it in short order. “A PC with a 10-megabyte hard drive had a $10,000 price tag back then,” Black said.
He played an important role in one of the first big technological advancements in Delta’s reservations department in 1980s. At the time, since passengers were still years away from buying tickets on the Internet, there were dozens of reservations offices scattered across North America. He and another employee spent an entire year traveling to every one of them — “from Mexico to Montreal,” as he put it — overseeing the installation of IBM PS-2 computers, each with a 300-baud modem. This allowed each office to send reports back to the central computer in Atlanta, where they were printed out on a dot-matrix printer.
Later Black had the idea for another innovation in his department. Reports were routinely run every night off the phone system and printed on a mountain of paper, but he asked if he could hook the system directly into the computer and utilize Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheets, which at the time were the industry standard and a forerunner of today’s Excel applications.
“I got a friend of mine to write a program for it, and it worked, much to everyone’s surprise,” he said with a chuckle. “Instead of running all night and wasting all of that paper, it kept everything right there on the computer.”
Black eventually moved from reservations into what for a number of years was known as Delta Technology. He now works in software distribution, helping manage all of the company’s software rolls and keeping each division updated by sending out new software electronically.
The next big milestone for Black is July 2, when he celebrates his 80th birthday. But that date appears to have no impact on when his career might end.
“I don’t relish retirement,” he said. “I grew up on a 120-acre farm in east Tennessee. There were things to be done every morning before school and every afternoon when I got back home. I got used to working and realized it was good for me.”
But 60 years with the same company takes more than a good work ethic. There is something to be said for his working environment.
“I tell everybody that I like what I do, who I do it with and who I do it for,” said Black. “I have a good boss, good colleagues and a good reason to get up in the morning. It doesn’t get any better than that.”