Delta Air Lines canceled dozens of flights over the weekend and said it would fill middle seats on some flights from Sunday through Monday, its latest embarrassing scheduling mishaps due to staffing issues.
Delta canceled nearly 80 flights on Sunday and another 10 cancellations were set for Monday, according to flight-tracking website FlightAware.com. That pales in comparison to Delta's meltdowns over Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the airline canceled hundreds of flights. But there's now a clear trend: When travel demand surges over the holidays, Delta can't seem to cope.
More importantly, Delta broke its core promise to consumers: To keep the ship running over the busy Easter weekend, Delta filled the middle seats it has vowed to keep empty.
Hi, Sam. We can understand your disappointment. Seat caps have been removed for April 4-5. Please share your confirmation code and email on file via DM. Jax https://t.co/6iDGBJRMTU
— Delta (@Delta) April 4, 2021
Delta was expected to continue blocking middle seats until May 1. The airline has made empty middle seats the core of its pandemic strategy, hoping the guarantee of some extra space drives more flyers to Delta. The fact that it was forced to break that promise – even temporarily – to prevent even more cancellations over the weekend shows the depths of Delta's issues.
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. The airline often goes half a year or longer without a single cancellation.
So what gives?
Why Delta Keeps Canceling Flights
At its core, Delta's issue is simple: It's a much smaller airline than it was just two years ago.
As travel collapsed due to the pandemic, Delta (and all airlines) needed to shrink. And Delta did so 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 last summer and fall.
That's fine when travel numbers are at rock bottom, as they were for much of last summer and full. But when travel surges, Delta is clearly stretched too thin – and the U.S. is in the midst of a major travel surge, as more than 1 million travelers have moved through U.S. airports for 25 days straight.
Yet American canceled just five flights on Easter Sunday while Southwest canceled only two – and United didn't cancel a single flight. So why does Delta continue having issues while other airlines seem to fly on smoothly?
- 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 once again tried to pack in more flights than it could reliably operate as a smaller airline, and it paid the price.
- Delta has a staffing issue. Thousands of frontline employees left the airline this summer, including more than 1,000 pilots. Plus, the airline retired planes like the Boeing 777, MD-88s, and MD-90s, making the issue even worse: Pilots who flew those planes need to be retrained on a new plane. Other pilots need to backfill those who left the airline last summer, but Delta can't train them fast enough. Long story short: Delta doesn't have the right number of pilots ready to fly the planes it needs in the sky.
Those staffing issues were exacerbated by Delta employees taking time off for Easter as well as vaccinations. Just as COVID-19 vaccinations are ramping up across the country, more and more airline employees are getting their shots. But the Federal Aviation Administration bans airline crews from working within 48 hours of getting a vaccine.
Canceling 100 flights may not seem like a lot, but it's a major black eye for Delta. Its reputation as the best-run airline has taken a serious blow over the last six months.
Worst of all, these operational issues forced Delta to fill middle seats on Sunday and again on Monday, breaking its key promise to flyers.