Delta’s Lawyers Tell The Government Air Travel Is Unsafe and Should Be Limited. Say What?

Delta lawyers submitted a filing to the Department of Transportation in which they make the case that travel is unsafe and flights should be limited if at all possible.

That’s not the position Delta takes in public, of course, or emphasizes with employees. But it’s a convenient argument to make when they’re trying to reduce their service obligations under the federal airline bailout.

Delta has no problem making inconsistent arguments and playing hardball.

Under the CARES Act, airlines taking government money can’t lay off workers or reduce their pay rates through the end of September. They also have to continue serving all of the cities they served before the pandemic, unless they get a specific exemption from the Department of Transportation. DOT exemptions have been hard to come by except in limited cases.

Delta made another run at exemptions deploying the argument that flights are unsafe, and travel represents a risk to airport workers. As a result the government should allow Delta to operate fewer flights, while still taking the money, because they’re just looking out for the health of people on the front lines.

During this pandemic, airport employees and crews must place themselves at risk to staff each flight and Delta seeks to reduce this risk as much as possible. One way Delta seeks to minimize health risks to its workforce is by limiting the number of airport stations that remain open for business during the COVID-19 health emergency to reduce the total number of airport staff who must report to frontline work.

Airlines are permitted to consolidate service at a single airport in metropolitan areas with more than one – for instance service just LaGuardia in the New York area. However Delta is asking to drop service at 9 airports arguing that they’re within 75 miles of an alternate airport and less air service is safer.

Delta filing with the Department of Transportation

As the Atlanta-based carrier makes its case,

Delta recognizes that the grant of this exemption may result in inconvenience to some
members of the traveling public who will need to drive further to access Delta’s air
transportation network. However, that inconvenience is outweighed by the public health and safety of the employees that Delta is trying to protect.

Delta wants to drop air service because that will protect employees at the airports they no longer serve.

To be clear the federal government is requiring airlines to offer far more service than makes sense given passenger demand. Delta points out they’re carrying just a single passenger per day each way out of Worcester, Massachusetts. Although if that’s the case, how much of a health risk to employees can there really be?

The airline doesn’t want to operate these flights because they lose money. The requirement for airlines to operate these flights borders on the surreal. But it was clearly the deal when Delta accepted billions in taxpayer subsidies.

What could possibly lead Delta to argue, though, that air travel poses a threat to public health, when their business is air travel? They actually explain their motivation in the filing. DOT refused to grant United exemptions from serving several airports because their request was based solely on the terrible economics of flying to those airports. So Delta distinguishes their request as not being about the economics, but about public health. They’re trying to give DOT a reason to grant their request, saying it’s different from the requests being denied.

Here, by contrast, Delta seeks an exemption to protect the health and safety of airport staff by reducing their exposure to the health risks associated with COVID19. Delta submits that the public interest in protecting airport workers from the risk of exposure to a potentially deadly virus outweighs the inconvenience of the additional driving distance to access Delta’s network for such a small number of passengers.

Delta’s motivations here are transparent. They outline those motivations in their filing. However airports with the least amount of traffic also present the smallest risk to public health.

(HT: Points Pilot)

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, 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. […] In the meantime, there are livelihoods on the line and businesses that may not return, and dreams being crushed and those have consequences – including public health consequences too. This is an insidious virus and public policy responses involve tradeoffs, but Sara Nelson’s proposed ban on leisure travel is certainly a minority view and not one that’ll even be good for airline and airport workers (even as Delta self-servingly deploys this argument). […]


  1. @ Gary — This is why the federal government should have never bailed out the airlines. This infuriates me as a tax payer.

  2. @ Rene — At least the post is now on a blog that doesn’t block comments to cover their own lack of knowledge.

  3. Delta leads with the obviously poor economics (low loads) of serving these airports, then as if to toss a Hail Mary, tries to distinguish this application from United’s denial by making a flimsy public health argument.

    I doubt the DOT buys it.

  4. Yeah, for Delta it’s worth a shot. They won’t receive it, but it’s worth a try…

  5. They should have just been allowed to file for bankruptcy. Then they could fly where ever they wanted and the taxpayers wouldn’t get screwed.

  6. Capitalist societies are all about letting markets dictate success or failure. We don’t live in a capitalistic society when every 10 years, a crisis emerges where airlines, and other publicly held companies can’t survive without financial aid.

  7. They want to keep the payroll money while not operating any flights. This is how DL always behaves. Worst company ever. They will say whatever needs to be said to take money from the gov’t and screw people over.

  8. Delta has been accepting the taxpayer $$ for ESA (Essential Air Service), so they should provide it.

  9. The majority of the employees at the listed stations probably aren’t even Delta employees. They likely work for one of a number of ground handlers Delta employs at small stations. Delta’s ground handler contractor will just lay those people off when the flights to those cities are dropped.

    Delta needs to live up to its agreement and fly these flights until October 1.

  10. Given the airlines’ penchant for cancelling one or more of the few scheduled flights, it’s no surprise that passenger loads are low. The closest airports to me are served by United, and it offers one flight per day (down from 3 at one airport and 4 at the other). When that one flight is cancelled, there isn’t much hope that the trip will be completed. Since the cancellations come several times a week, how can one plan on air travel? The answer, of course, is that one cannot plan, and therefore plans no air travel.

  11. Delta abuses their frequent flyers, why would we not expect them to try and abuse the U.S. government?

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