How Delta’s IT Meltdown Is Sticking It To Customers Today

Last night’s Delta’s IT systems melted down, flights couldn’t get necessary information to take off, and ultimately there were significant delays and cancellations.

When that happens:

  • Aircraft are out of position. Morning flights the next day cancel or delay significantly when planes aren’t where it’s supposed to be.

  • Crew need to get rest. When flights take off and land late, crew often able to turn around right away and depart when originally scheduled, flights get delayed while crews take their required minimum rest.

Delta reports 170 flights cancelled yesterday but of course the vast majority of late evening flights delayed for hours. They report 110 cancellations already today with more to come.

Delta’s IT melted down six months ago. Last night’s problems came exactly one week after United’s IT systems crashed and caused a domestic grounding. American and Southwest have experienced similar issues as well. Legacy systems, some dating back 50 years, need significant upgrade and security investment. IT is hard, but the frequency with which this happens suggests it’s not getting the priority it should.

Today’s flying on Delta is going to be messy. This is exacerbated by Delta’s hubris: they can’t put stranded passengers on American Airlines (the world’s largest airline!) because they decided that:

  • They’re so reliable they didn’t need the interline relationship
  • American should have to pay them more than industry standard rates if they want to keep it
  • So interlining between the two carriers ended.

Delta’s CEO apologized but put zero substance behind it.

“I want to apologize to all of our customers who have been impacted by this frustrating situation,” said CEO Ed Bastian. “This type of disruption is not acceptable to the Delta family, which prides itself on reliability and customer service. I also want to thank our employees who are working tirelessly to accommodate our customers.”

If you don’t want to travel today and deal with Delta’s operational mess, the airline has a travel waiver in place but it’s exceptionally stingy.

Unless your flight cancels or winds up significantly delayed (in which case you’ll be entitled to a refund) your only option is to reschedule your trip and travel by Friday.

Heading to the airport, given the risk of delays that’s the fault of Delta’s own IT is something that if you can avoid you’d sort of want to. Maybe you’d just bag your business trip this week and push it off to next. But Delta won’t allow that. Cancelling today, flying out tomorrow, doesn’t give you the same business trip you’d have had without Delta’s problems.

Business travelers starting their week on a Monday can’t just start on Thursday or Friday. Meetings need to be rescheduled, and even leaving on Tuesday means losing of day of their week. A reasonable waiver would give them a do-over next week or the following. Delta should allow a more generous rebooking window and their failure to do so is an insult to the customers they’re inconveniencing.

This would give Delta extra seats needed to get stranded passengers from last night’s outage to their destinations more quickly. As it stands there’s little slack in a system running at over 80% capacity already.

Anyone whose flights were delayed today should consult the benefits of the credit card used to purchase their tickets.

  • Most premium cards and certainly most rewards cards offer coverage
  • This will usually give you up to $500 towards the cost of hotel, meals, and related expenses you incur as a result of a flight delay
  • Most cards require you to pay the full cost of a ticket on a card to qualify for coverage. Some (like Citi Prestige and Chase Sapphire Preferred) only require partial payment — which means award tickets are covered, albeit only up to the amount charged.
  • The length of delay required will vary as well, from a 4 hour delay to an overnight delay or a 12 hour delay.

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. […] How Delta's IT Meltdown Is Sticking It To Customers Today – View from the Wing Delta reports 170 flights cancelled yesterday but of course the vast majority of late evening flights delayed for hours. They report 110 cancellations already today with more to come. Reply With Quote […]


  1. Out of curiosity, you said these legacy systems are (in some cases) over 50 years old. Isn’t that pre-computer…1967 or earlier? How can they possibly be that old?

  2. Ok, thanks guys. I guess I meant pre-widespread use of computers in private businesses. You’re right about the moon and I should’ve remembered that. It just came across to me as very shocking that any computer system, i.e. software, could still be in use from that long ago. It’s still somewhat unbelievable to me that the IT system hasn’t been upgraded since then. It seems plausible that airlines were using IT systems that far back, but less likely that in the ensuing 50 years they haven’t upgraded.

  3. 50 years later. Mainframes are still around. All types of companies still have some type of reliance on them. They are not fancy. Hum along. Don’t break often but when they do hard to fix. I imagine some of that is to be blamed here. Delta’s smugness doesn’t help either. Apologize and accommodate graciously.

  4. @Ben Often it’s a case of if it aint broke don’t fix it. IT is always seen as a pure business expense to be cut whenever there needs to be a cost reduction. Thus IT are left with no money to invest in replacing legacy applications, and rather waste thousands and thousands of dollars keeping legacy applications running.

  5. With regards to the IT meltdowns in the aviation industry recently, it looks like Delta is finally following United’s lead for a change…

  6. American hasn’t had any of these problems, at least not to the scale that United and Delta have. Go SABRE!

  7. So much for Delta’s “reliability” factor that this blog and others have touted. DL’s IT is no better than anyone else and in fact worse than newer airlines such as VX. And clearly the irregular ops policy is mediocre as well though maybe not as bad as Spirit.

    Trump needs to call all the airline CEOs into the white house and start banging some heads. This is unacceptable. We should just take the system down for a day so everyone can replace these outdated mainframes.

  8. @Boraxo – not a chance in hell. These systems are massively complex and integrated with so many other systems. I’m sure there’s slow moving plans to replace these archaic systems, but the reality is no system is perfect and every system – including new systems will have down time.

    In fact a newer system may in fact have more down time than these existing systems. These existing systems have been in production for many years, so the vast majority of issues have been fixed. Down time will most likely be caused by failing hardware or network/accessibility issues.

    I think part of the problem with these systems is they’re so intertwined that they suffer from the snow ball affect. IE they look at upgrading say the lounge admittance system, but that interlinks into the reservations system, the inventory management system, the loyalty program system, the finance system and the passenger reporting system. So what starts out as s small change quickly becomes a bigger than Ben Hur exercise which costs a small fortune and has a reasonably high risk of causing an issue in another area.

    Its worth noting that even a 99% up time still allows for ~7 hours of down time.

  9. They need continuous backups to another system and they should print each flight details to PDF every 30 minutes so they have something to refer to to get people on planes. After the plane takes off they can delete the PDF.

  10. One of the challenges the airline industry faces regarding these legacy systems is not so much the age, but most of the application are homegrown code that will not run on many of today’s servers. This means it isn’t an upgrade to more reliable hardware, but a total re-write of code in more modern languages on current hardware.

  11. These systems are not 50+ years old. No mainframes that old are in use at Delta or American or United. I defy Gary to provide any evidence to the contrary. A 1967-vintage mainframe takes up a room and has less computing power than a desktop PC, by the way.

    These systems are inexcusably terrible at United, American and Delta. With all three making money, they oughtta be replaced with all deliberate speed.

    Delta, incidentally, still cancels fewer flights than United or American by far, a fact not mentioned above. And one that won’t change after this debacle.

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