A Loss Of Reliability Has Far-Reaching Implications For Delta – And American Express

Delta is proactively trimming its schedule, even cancelling flights just a couple of days before the big Memorial Day weekend. Cancelling in advance instead of at the airport may be better, but this is going to be a huge headache for some travelers.

This comes after a weekend in which they were cancelling upwards of 10% of their flights, and their operation was such a mess they even assigned a pilot to operate a flight they weren’t qualified for.

Delta Air Lines used to have a reputation for almost never cancelling a mainline flight. Their unique selling proposition was their reliability. They accomplished this with a fleet of generally older aircraft, and built a maintenance capability so effective that it became a profit center.

This isn’t a new problem for Delta, in fact Delta was first to begin having operational meltdowns in the Covid world. They fell apart for Thanksgiving 2020 and again over Christmas 2020 followed by Easter Weekend 2021.

To be sure, customers are still going to fly Delta tickets. They key hubs in Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Detroit and Minneapolis (but really the entirety of the ‘Upper Midwest’) But it’s their reputation that matters for success in New York and Los Angeles. And it’s that reputation that drives not just ticket sales, but adoption and use of their co-brand American Express card (which is to say, attraction to the SkyMiles program).

Delta even explains that their overall value proposition (greater reliability, friendlier employees) means they do not have to offer as generous a SkyMiles program. Losing their halo from operational reliability has far-reaching implications – from the revenue stream for SkyMiles, to a material impact on their partner American Express. Without the operational halo, their SkyMiles program is at a disadvantage.

American Express is tied to Delta through 2029 in a deal that became far more expensive 8 years ago after they lost Costco. Delta was left as their biggest cobrand partner, and they paid a big premium to lock in that relationship – a cost structure that spread to the rest of the consolidated industry in which there were fewer airline partners to work with. That premium might make sense in a world where customers are willing to accept a less valuable currency for their spend, which is reliant upon the Delta operational halo.

I don’t know that I would pin Deta’s challenges all on the departure of Gil West. I suspect they lost a lot of organizational knowledge and capability when they shed 31% of employees during the pandemic. But I am sympathetic to the view that without much of the talent below the C-Suite, current leadership may not be well-suited to fixing the problem – in other words, that it isn’t just a blip and new hiring and flexibility in schedules alone may not solve the problem.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. still much better for Delta to cancel proactively than once you’re at the airport.

  2. I always defend and promote Delta here, but I have felt/seen the impact of less operational reliability, longer wait times and technology gaffes the past year or so.

    Will I keep choosing to fly Delta over the competitors? Yes – because for now,
    1) I’m not hearing of a dramatically better experience at American or United
    2) Delta continues to offer a much better ground experience (SkyClubs) and generally better in flight experience across the country
    3) It is super easy to maintain meaningful status (Platinum and above) through Amex

    If any of this changes, I will look at the other options. The new United Clubs at EWR and LGA look interesting. AA/JetBlue still too much of a cluster at this point IMO.

  3. Because the others are so bad, Delta only has to be “good enough” to still be the top pick for most…myself included.

  4. Aren’t the DL pilots negotiating for a new contract? They may be following the rules more literally, they may be calling out and declining extra trips. Same thing that Alaska is facing.

  5. @ Gary — It shouldn’t be long until we start see requalification promos. I predict Delta will go first, beginning July 1, and the others will follow..

  6. At least with my city, I can only fly to some of Delta’s hubs non-stop, and none of them are places I’m particularly interested in going, plus no Delta club in my city. At least with AA, I have a chance of a non-stop flight and an Admiral’s Club. Plus, I see no value in SkyPesos, despite having a pile for years from a CC offer. I could possibly use them on a VirginAtlantic flight.

  7. I was thoroughly disappointed at Delta last weekend. going from LAX to DCA via MSP.
    There was a 62 minutes layover but the flight pulled off the gate 38 minutes late. we almost missed our connection as they closed the door in Minneapolis 5 minutes after we boarded.
    I am status matching with Delta but this experience of the short layover and near miss connecting flight gives me pause.
    I realize all the airlines do this but I expected better from Delta..

  8. I have always maintained that all airlines suck, Delta just sucks the least. I have had more challenges with Delta in the last few weeks than in the past 10 years. I have bought in to Delta hook, line and sinker so I’m not changing. Besides, my only other choice for my destinations is AA and I’m not going down that road. I guess I will just live through it. And although they have devalued their program significantly since I started with them, it is still just slightly better than most others. I said “most”. The lines to get into a Skyclub in half the places I go is wearing on me though.

  9. Well, they’ll figure it out and start throwing SkyMiles around and everyone will complain and they’ll all fly Delta anyway.

  10. What airlines have y’all been flying?! At every aspect of my interactions with Delta, it’s nothing less than pleasant, efficient, frictionless, etc.

    It’s clear they focus on culture internally and that they take care of their people (as evidenced by the customer experience).

    There will always be “stuff” that happens, I’m just glad they aren’t canceling flights by the thousands like others airlines did…DURING THE DECEMBER HOLIDAYS.

  11. Kevin G nails it! “…..all airlines suck, Delta just sucks the least.”
    It’s a brave new world, because reasons…..

  12. Other than one pair of flights in June, I’ve basically stopped flying Delta since the first week of April and through Labor Day. Prices are too high, connections are too short. I’ve already “requalified” for Platinum in 2022 thanks to the 2020 and 2021 extensions and all the Amex spend MQMs, and I have some RUC-supported transcons for Q4 to get me most of the way to 2023 Gold qualification.

    One big selling point for me switching to Delta when I relocated in 2018 was the location and ease of DTW as a connecting city, where I’d be willing to pay a small price premium and connect more frequently in exchange for operational excellence, complementary C+, and the occasional domestic upgrade. But there isn’t nearly enough frequency now so the prices are skyrocketing, and connections are routinely under 40 minutes which is too short even without the risk of frequent IRROPS.

  13. First, spell check before publishing or are you so quick to slam Delta, you forgot to proof read. The preponderance of the Amex card and Sky Miles will suffer because of Delta pre planning cancellations in advance over one weekend is utterly ridiculous. I’m sure Delta removed flights that had lower load factors to disrupt the fewest number of passengers. In the long run, Delta consistently delivers a better experience than other carrier’s.

  14. Please use a different pic when you talk about delta. That crazy looking person is nightmare fuel

  15. John O’ Toole are you new? Chill dude! Mr. Leff is famous for his typos and circular logic donut holes. It gives his column a certain “specialness” long time readers enjoy decoding. Don’t like it? Avert your eyes and move on. Life’s too short and Mr. Leff is not going to change. I There will be NO editor in his future nor does he need one. Peace out dude…..

  16. Wow, it is hard to take you seriously after reading this article. Read it again and think .

  17. @747always that’s a pic of the (in)famous Deltalina. She starred in DL safety videos for several years and was known for her wagging finger. While scary, yes, she’s also iconic.

  18. Seems like Ed Bastian has brought on people who can’t lead much beyond a fair weather operation. Below C-Suite, all the power house leaders were replaced with what appears to be amateurs. Unqualified “leaders.” Delta was the least miserable of all the airlines but with the way things are progressing, hopefully Bastian smartens up and gets rid of all his divisional leaders before they ruin this airline

  19. Gary clearly builds his blog on clickbait so a few facts are in order.

    1. Multiple airlines have had staffing issues since the pandemic started and airlines started to rebuild their schedules even in the summer of 2020.
    2. According to DOT data, Delta has consistently maintained its position as having the best on-time and lowest rate of cancellations of the big 4 and as number 2 among all US airlines (behind HA) on most operational metrics.
    3. Every airline, and I mean every airline, has made repeated adjustments to their schedules in order to adjust to demand and staffing. The difference with Delta in May 2022 is that Delta is making adjustments within days of operational disruptions occuring. Other airlines esp. during the summers of 2020 and 2021 had thousands of cancellations – double digit percentages of flights cancelled for days in a row – before they acted to adjust their schedules.
    4. There isn’t a shred of evidence that any airline-credit card partnerships have been impacted by the operational disruptions that any airline has faced. None
    5. Also according to DOT data, Delta has maintained one of the best consumer complaint ratios throughout the pandemic and during the recovery. American and United’s consumer complaint ratio is multiples of times WORSE than Delta and Southwest’s. AA and UA’s own customers recognize that DL does a better job of taking care of its customers -even when has operational problems.

    While cherrypicked “facts” might generate clicks, actual facts and data and show that Delta is addressing its operational challenges faster than other airlines, just as they have done throughout the pandemic – and before- and DOT data shows that their strategies have worked to allow them to maintain higher DOT metrics than other airlines.

  20. While cherrypicked “facts” might generate clicks, actual facts and data show that __________ (fill in the blank with any claim)

    You think? If so, then welcome to the game of “winners and losers” as rigged daily by self-anointed “thought leader in travel”…

  21. @Tim Dunn – no cherrypicking here and I write about the problems other airliens have, I’m not saying Delta is the only one with problems! But they have become much more like the others, and the luster has worn off, their hack of a halo may matter for their revenue premium going forward and they don’t have the dumpster fire of SkyMiles to fall back on

  22. Wow. You don’t think that maybe Gil West left seeing the challenges recovering from covids impact on a global carrier would have? The pilots are deep into contract talks and no industry on the planet is meeting consumer expectations. This article reeks of sensationized attention grabbing- easy to write, little value.

  23. If you think there was a halo before, Gary, you were probably living in a cloud. Delta has run a reliable operation for years and according to the DOT through their most recent reporting period, Delta continues to outperform its most direct peers in on-time and cancellation rates – not even considering consumer complaints and overbookings.

    You don’t even have industry data through May for all airlines; the DOT has a process for verifying even what flight tracking sites provide. The DOT also considers regional partners as part of an airline – as they are. The only reason United mainline doesn’t look worse is because they cancel such a high percentage of their regional carrier flights. You didn’t bother to sort out which of Republic’s flights were under whose code but they have cancelled extensively and at a much higher rate over the past two weeks. Where are your articles about JBLU’s repeated capacity reductions? Did I miss your article about UA’s capacity reductions or did you fail to write about them?

    Picking out a few data points and excluding others is not accuracy.

    I have no problem w/ you pointing out the facts – but I will challenge you and anyone else when you make statements about “far reaching implications” to Delta or American Express to prove them. Yes, it is clickbait if you can’t prove them. Did American and Southwest’s relationship with its credit card partners tank last summer? Of course they did not. And if you think there will be “long term implications” you should be able to document that has happened at other airlines.

    Delta is experiencing higher rates of cancellation. But the amount of those cancellations is far lower than what other airlines have experienced. Delta is acting sooner than other airlines did with their operational problems. And Delta is reducing a lower percentage of its capacity than other airlines.

    You are entitled to your opinion as is everyone else but when you use verbs like “has implications” rather than “might have implications” you will be challenged.

    Do better or accept the title of being opinionated and writing fact-devoid clickbait.

  24. Do better or accept the title of being opinionated and writing fact-devoid clickbait.

    Good luck with that. He’s been “writing fact-devoid clickbait” that I’ve repeatedly debunked over a decade but persists, word for word. Who needs facts where you are the “thought leader”? You just make them up as you go along to support your claims no matter how bogus, and then you repeat them ad nauseam until weaker minds pick them up and they become established dogma. The result is what is known as the ‘paradox of propaganda’ , of which Josef Goebbels is the most prominent manifestation and refers to the fact that when one sets out to brainwash others, one ends up brainwashing oneself. In short, our “thought leader” actually believes his own “fact-free clickbait”, which is why once he’s pushed a bogus claim, he’ll keep pushing it no matter how often it’s debunked …

    G’day.

  25. This is laughable as unbiased fact reporting. I’m sure Delta and those of us who make this our airline of choice (1MM DM x 4) will appreciate you and the whining peanut gallery taking your entitlement to SWA. ENJOY!

  26. DELTA HAS THE OLDEST FLEET IN THE INDUSTRY!
    OLD 757,767,717’S.
    THE ONLY NEW AIRCRAFT IS THE AIRBUS A350.
    ORDER SLOTS THEY RECIEVED WHEN AA DECIDED TO GO WITH BOEING 787’S AND DITCH THE USAIR AIRBUS ORDER.
    DELTA’S OLD FLEET WILL SOON OFFER RELIABILITY ISSUES.
    THAT IS WHY AA DITCHED THE 767,757.
    YOU CAN ONLY PUT LIPSTICK ON A PUG FOR SO LONG.
    I PREFER POINT TO POINT NONSTOPS AND NEW AIRCRAFT.
    I CAN EAT ATY FAVORITE RESTAURANT’S UPON ARRIVAL!

  27. I almost never say this, Gary is right. That Delta may still offer a better overall experience isn’t the point. You are paying a premium for a better experience in the form of weak loyalty program and ticket price. If DL is only incrementally better, that does destroy the brand. If Spirit sucks more, does it really matter? Most of my flights are from large airports on the coasts. DL lounges in these markets are often significantly worse than AA and UA in terms of infrastructure and support services. That makes them a nonstarter for me.

  28. I love that the guy complaining about proofreading misspelled proofread. Good Job, good effort!

  29. MARK (since you think all caps proves your point)
    United has the oldest fleet of any US airline right now at 16.5 years according to airfleets.
    Delta is at 14.8.

    But seriously, what does fleet age have to do with anything? The point of airlines is to get you to your destination in the most cost effective and with the greatest amount of amenities.

    American touts that it has the youngest fleet of the big 4 and yet it does not say – because it cannot – that its fleet is more cost effective than Delta’s. And American and Southwest – both which younger fleets than Delta or United – do not have seatback AVOD on any domestic narrowbody aircraft other than the A321Ts. You can argue that you don’t want seatback AVOD but it is an amenity that other airlines don’t have.

    As usual, though, when confronted with actual facts – which is that Delta and its regional carriers STILL is running the most reliable operation of the big 4 according to actual data from the DOT. United has the highest percentage of regional jets – the chances of getting a mainline domestic flight is as high as getting a regional jet – and the cancellation rate for UAL’s regional fleet is much higher.

    Your comment is not only inaccurate but it is precisely the same attempts at cherrypicking that Gary has exchanged in to try to prove a point – which he has failed to do. Maybe by the time the DOT releases its data through May, Delta will fall from its position at the top of the list.

    Miamiorbust,
    perceptions of quality are subjective but when Ben at OMAAT says that Delta Sky Clubs are higher quality than AA or UA’s clubs and he lives in an AA hub city, your perception of quality seems to differ from that of others.

  30. Maybe Ed Bastian should focus more on running the airline rather than all those woke causes.

  31. If you want to talk facts, of the big airlines alone since 2020, United is the only one that hasn’t had an operational meltdown. Delta, American, Southwest have all had multiple meltdowns.

    While United leadership still has a long way to go to build up the culture that was so utterly destroyed by Smisek, they’re clearly leading the pack in planning for these operational disruptions and are running a more solid operation from a mass cancellation/delay perspective.

    I don’t know that United will ever show up as #1 for on-time performance or cancellations, but a lot of that has to do with the fact that United’s hubs are in the most weather-and-ATC delay prone locations in the country. SFO-fog, ORD-snow and thunderstorms, EWR-weather and ATC, etc.

  32. John O’Toole lectures about proofreading then typex this: I’m sure Delta removed flights that had lower load factors to disrupt the fewest number of passengers. In the long run, Delta consistently delivers a better experience than other carrier’s. Carriers is the plural. Not carrier’s. With the apostrophe is possessive, not plural.

  33. Didn’t realize this is a “pick on Gary” site. Quite frankly this no where near the clickbait of some other sites. Gary I’ve always enjoyed your insights and articles. I’ve only had a couple of interactions with DL in the last few years. One of them was an IT meltdown before covid hit and they gave a full refund without any issues and were apologetic and kind. Ended up on a WN flight (w/o working wifi). Another time I tried to get to ATL but that was when there was a massive ice storm that delayed the flight for more hours than I could count. In the SkyClub they just refunded the whole trip including a paid upgrade. They were quite apologetic even though it was out of their control. I mean when I checked into the SkyClub they even offered to move to an earlier flight if I wished – I didn’t even ask.

    I haven’t flown them since covid though so that halo could all evaporating. I do still hold them in high regard, but won’t ever ever book a tight connection regardless of airline.

    Thanks again Gary for your insights.

  34. and as sure as the sun rose today, the NE’s airports are melting down.
    The highest number and percentage of cancellations is on Republic.
    JBLU’s on-time at this point in the afternoon is 2X as bad as DAL’s – but I can’t recall when Gary wrote an article about JBLU’s lack of reliability.
    Help me out, Gary, and provide a link. JBLU has had the industry’s lowest on-time performance for so long but no one should accept it as “normal” any more than they should accept AAL or LUV’s thousands of cancellations last summer or United’s practice of repeatedly cancelling its regional carriers at a rate more than twice as high as United mainline – and UAL’s mainline on-time is still worse than Delta’s – according to the DOT.

  35. After reading last weeks NYT Magazine article on tech bros who are hired to ‘manage’ OnlyFans accounts by hiring English speakers from around the world to pretend to be the performer having conversations with the customers, I have to wonder if these 2 people here who go on every blog to extol Delta or Hilton respectively are also groups of low-paid workers in the Philippines…

  36. Speaking of weak minds that obliviously imbibe the kool-aid and then consider any challenge of it nothing short of heresy…

  37. thank you for that reminder, Gary, that United has struggled just like everyone else.
    And it is also worth noting that even though 2021 and its end of year holidays are behind us, United still is performing worse than Delta and American in DOT data. Given that Scott Kirby has wailed about the amount of non-United flights at EWR, it is clear that EWR is the Achilles heel of UA’s operation and the data shows it. Let’s remember that EWR was slot-controlled up until about 8 years or so ago but UA wasn’t using its slots per FAA rules so the slot restrictions were lifted and a bunch of low cost competition flooded in and it has been a revolving door of new capacity at EWR which Kirby somehow thinks shouldn’t be allowed to happen.

    But let’s also be clear that Kirby was Parker’s right hand network man at USAirways when they engaged in the slot deal that literally gave DL 1/4 of the slots at LGA; unlike AA at DCA or UA at EWR, DL has never had a majority of the slots at any slot-controlled airport. Kirby simply doesn’t know how to manage a constrained supply environment and the latest iteration of that is that UA’s operations at EWR are consistently worse than DL’s at LGA and JFK or even B6. Throw in a bad weather day in the NE and nobody looks good.

    Speaking of DL, a little analysis which anyone can do shows that DL is cancelling predominantly B737 and A320 series flights. Those two fleets are the backbone of its domestic network but their B717 and A220 as well as B757 fleets are operating fairly normally. DL pilots on public forums say that DL is still training A320 and B737 pilots, many of which were displaced as part of the pandemic.
    Pilots also say that DL is relying heavily on pilot overtime to complete its pilot manning and to no one’s surprise, pilots are far less interested in working overtime on holidays. It is precisely for that reason that DL’s operational problems have almost entirely been over holidays.
    It is also why DL doesn’t look any worse than other carriers over a month or quarter because other airlines have total cancellations that are as large or larger than DL has on holidays.
    The reason DL is pulling down a couple percent of its schedule is because their ability to staff with overtime is apparently being stretched even outside of holidays.
    Reports are that DL is training 500 or more new pilots in their proper aircraft per month so the improvement should start showing up.

    Given that there is no evidence of long-term damage to any airline from their operational problems and DL had operational problems along with United at Christmas while AA and WN paid massive overtime to prevent a repeat of their summer 2021 mess, it is doubtful that there will be any long term damage to DL or Amex or anyone else.

    And the same staffing shortages are playing out around the world, including in Europe as demand returns.

    DL never had a halo except in the minds of some people. It has run a better business and operation and is cancelling more flights than usual now but far fewer than other airlines did during their worst operational meltdowns during the pandemic.

    For everyone’s sake, I hope they get it figured out but that was true wiht AA and WN and Spirit last summer.

  38. Exactly. SW, United, American and the LCCs have been absolute dumpster fires for the covid years, and largely before. Gary’s poor blog blames Delta’s new challenges on poor leaders, although arguably only one senior leader has ‘retired’ who was the COO during some of Deltas most publicized meltdowns over the last decade (2014, 2017). JetBlue and Alaska have een canceling 10% of their operation for 6 months, but win JD power awards. My experience with Delta is they charge out of holes better then the rest, by far. I expect they will now, albeit the environment is much choppier. Name an industry that isn’t struggling with supply chain disruption. Disapointingly, but not surprisingly the pilot and flight attendent unions, who were paid in full by us taxpayers for 2 years while they sat on the bench are now happy to stay seated to leverage better pay and take advantage of the shortage. Stop with the headline grabbing click bait that reads more like a union blog forum then meaningful Industry analysis.

  39. @James Webb ….and your rambling drivel wreaks of management suck up. BTW , Delta does not have a F/A union

  40. DL has known this all along and failed to do anything and decided to leave passengers at their mercy. Time for the gullible DL fans to finally realize that DL does not care a bit about customers. Good to see DL’s real face finally getting exposed!

  41. AS – quite the opposite. I live near Boston and have suffered through the incompetence of both AA and JB for decades. I also at one time had status on UA and frequent trips on SW. Delta growing here has been a game changer for me. Sorry to offer my opinion as a frequent traveler to a travel blog. It hasn’t been perfect but its been consistently reliable for me. My desire to respond to Gary was based on a growing trend that I see for industry journalists to post inflammatory headlines to get as many clicks and links to newsfeeds as possible. Then the story turns out to be an opinion piece from a travel writer not based on fact but an attempt to make the baiting headline relevant to the story.

  42. Thank you for sharing the video and hitting the nail on the head! I achieved DL Medallion status 8 years ago and added mileage runs the following year in order to achieve Diamond status. I kept it for several years but allowed it to drop to Platinum for several reasons, the loss of domestic seat upgrades near or at the top. Now, my Medallion status lapses altogether in February 2023 and I have taken a hard look at UA. This is a 180° turn for me. Before the pandemic, when UA allowed their flight to Italy from Newark to leave the gate with the fuel cap off, gushing JPA onto the taxiway and refused to even provide a hotel to the couple sitting behind the wing who alerted the flight attendant who declared the emergency (saving countless lives from a fiery grave off Newfoundland), I swore off UA. However, good ole Rhapsody in Blue has made an about-face. With my Silver status automatically applied from my Marriott status, I have access to preferred award and cash tickets which the general public does not. I also travel to Chicago, Houston, Newark and LA quite a bit for work and now would be the time to see just how well the “new” UA handles itself. How the mighty have fallen!

  43. The problem is Ed Bastian. Can Delta not see this? He’s terrible, will make millions, but be the decline of Delta.

  44. Corbett,
    You would do well to not blow a few data points out of proportion – no different than what I said to Gary at the beginning of the article.
    United SAYS it is improving its operation but they STILL perform worse in on-time than American which alot of people trash incessantly. And United STILL performs worse than Delta – and that will likely be the case if for no other reason than UA’s biggest hubs esp. ORD and EWR are in delay-prone cities from an ATC standpoint.
    UA also cancelled extensively – and more than DL – during the 2021-22 winter holidays and is adding back a bunch of widebody flying this summer as they return their aging 777s to service after the engine explosions. Part of DL’s operational problems right now is that widebody aircraft were flying domestic routes and relieved pressure on domestic fleets and pilots throughout the pandemic but as the world reopens, many flights that operated with international aircraft are returning to domestic aircraft – and the same thing will happen with United.

    The most significant part of your post is that you appear to travel primarily between UA hubs – and that is the largest driver of which loyalty program people belong to.

    If you jump ship from any company or situation every time anything goes the least bit wrong, you will spend your life jumping from ship to ship.

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