By blocking middle seats, emphasizing safety, and making customer-friendly moves, Delta has set itself apart during the pandemic. But lately, the Atlanta-based airline is making headlines for the wrong reasons: Delta can't seem to stop canceling flights at the worst possible time.
Delta canceled more than 600 flights over the busy Thanksgiving travel week, upending travelers' plans to get home. And as Americans hit the skies in record numbers over Christmas, Delta once again canceled hundreds of flights while its competitors suffered few, if any, setbacks.
Delta has prided itself on being the country's most reliable airline, with fewer delays and cancellations than the likes of American, United, or Southwest.
So what's happening? Why is the Atlanta on-time machine struggling so much lately? We have some insight.
Diving into Delta Canceled Flights
At its core, the issue is quite simple: Delta is a much smaller airline than it used to be.
As travel collapsed due to the pandemic, Delta (and all airlines) needed to shrink. And Delta did just that through a combination of voluntary leaves, buyout packages, and early retirements. Tens of thousands of pilots, flight attendants, gate agents, and other employees left the airline over the summer.
In normal times, that's fine. Its workforce is the right size to handle the new normal of travel demand. But when travel demand surges, cracks start to show, as we told the Washington Post.
And travel demand did indeed surge last week, as more than 1 million travelers hit the skies in six of the last 10 days, according to the TSA. It was the busiest travel period in the U.S. since mid-March. On Christmas Day alone, Delta canceled nearly 130 flights, according to flight records. In all of December 2019, Delta canceled just 26 flights, according to Department of Transportation data.
In a statement, Delta didn't shed much light on what happened. And it downplayed the severity of the issue, saying they canceled “several dozen” flights.
“A number of factors pressured our ability to timely staff several dozen scheduled flights, and we apologize to our customers for any inconvenience this may have caused,” a spokesman said in a statement. “The overwhelming majority of our customers were rebooked on flights within several hours of their original travel.”
So why does Delta continue melting down while other airlines seem to fly on smoothly through the holidays? There are a few factors at play here:
- Delta just tried to fly too much. Airlines are anxious to pick up whatever extra passengers they can for the holidays. But while other carriers seem to have realized how far they could go, Delta simply tried to pack in more flights than it could reliably operate as a smaller airline.
- Delta has a pilot staffing issue. More than 1,000 pilots left the airline this summer, but Delta is dealing with even more problems due to the retirement of the Boeing 777, MD-88s and MD-90s, and other planes. The pilots that previously flew those planes have to be retrained, and there's clearly a backlog. “Due to the downsizing of the airline and trying to manage the size of the workforce … there’s been some training issues that’s been created from moving pilots from airplane to airplane and getting them retrained,” Chris Riggins, a top official with Delta's pilot union, told the Washington Post.
- A winter storm made things worse. The midwest got hammered by a blizzard last Wednesday, as nearly 10 inches of snow led to cancellations in and out of Delta's Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) hub. That left pilots and planes out of place heading into Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Delta was desperate to avoid a repeat of the embarrassing Thanksgiving travel week, when the airline canceled a whopping 600-plus flights over several days.
“We’ve set up a cross-divisional … task force to learn what were root causes and to ensure we don’t have a repeat experience for Christmas or any time in the future,” Delta Senior Vice President John Laughter said in a memo to pilots in late November.
In some ways, Delta succeeded: The Christmas cancellations were fairly mild in comparison to Thanksgiving. Several Delta employees told Thrifty Traveler the airline was being more generous with overtime offers than it normally is for holidays. Delta also tried to call back as many flight attendants as possible from leave or holiday vacation to increase staffing.
But that wasn't enough to avoid canceling nearly 200 flights last week. And that's an embarrassing blow for the carrier that prides itself on being on-time – no matter what.
Delta has earned its reputation as the most reliable airline in the country over the years. That won't change overnight.
But this stings for Delta. It will have to work hard to earn back the trust of customers whose plans were wrecked over Thanksgiving and Christmas. And it will have to work doubly hard to make sure this doesn't happen again.