Delta Air Lines, which has developed a reputation for extreme reliability, has faced a Thanskgiving operational meltdown cancelling a more flights over the holiday weekend than they typically cancel in a year. So far on Thanksgiving day Delta has cancelled 259 flights, or 18% of its schedule. By comparison, American Airlines has cancelled 5 flights and United has cancelled 7.
What’s going on at Delta? An airline spokesperson acknowledged that “A number of factors have pressured our ability to timely staff several dozen scheduled flights” on Wednesday but when I asked about the reasons for cancellations throughout the holiday weekend they promised an explanation but none has been forthcoming. I will update if they respond.
Here are four possibilities, though, for what’s going on at Delta and note that these explanations are not mutually exclusive.
- Their operational competence left. The managers who knew how to run the airline and balance flights and crew resources are gone, having taken voluntary buy outs. This would be a bad omen for the airline’s future reliability.
- Pilots aren’t available to work. Delta didn’t keep the pilots they were considering for furlough current, so even though the airline ultimately didn’t furlough anyone and has plenty of pilots they aren’t available to fly – they haven’t done the required takeoffs and landings. And since pilots at risk of furlough weren’t scheduled to fly, while more senior pilots are used to flying grounded aircraft, those senior pilots hadn’t all done the required training to fly smaller domestic planes. Note that tracking this is something the airline’s middle managers should be doing.
- Sick outs. Employees who are unhappy with the airline over its pilot negotiations are calling out sick. Some employees left comments on my original post to this effect, suggesting it’s retaliation for hardball negotiating tactics that got the airline to a no-furlough agreement with its pilots. But the pilots just agreed, why act out in this fashion? It’s not clear what they gain, especially since there’s no longer active negotiations.
- Cost containment. The airline was unwilling to spend enough on overtime to get its flights out. They could pay extra to get pilots to volunteer but just won’t, or they’re having a hard time figuring out which pilots are eligible. Delta already has customer money, and can move customers around onto other flights. They’re choosing to inconvenience passengers over the holidays than spend more on holiday overtime to get enough pilot volunteers to make the operation go smoothly.
There do appear to be more sick calls than usual, but that always happens around the holiday and airlines plan for it. The question is why this year’s plan to manage it didn’t get the job done? And there are some unhappy pilots, but it’s not clear there’s an organized sick out campaign either.
So the cause seems likely (p=.7) to be a combination of failing to properly track which pilots are eligible to fly (I’m hearing from pilots receiving calls to fly who say they aren’t current), and an inability for the team that’s in place to make costly calls to solve the problem. Overtime costs would almost certainly be worth averting the meltdown but perhaps there’s a disconnect now between front line managers and those at the top.
As one correspondent offers,
[T]here is a clause in [the] pilot contract Green Slip With Conflict (GSWC) that would bring out plenty of pilots to fly, but for some reason, Delta hasn’t used it, or at least not used it enough to solve the problem.
In a GSWC, you’re basically robbing Peter to pay Paul. For example, Delta would have to take a pilot off a later trip to have [them] fly an earlier trip. That would take pressure off the Thanksgiving staffing, but the later trips would have to be filled with overtime pay. For some reason, likely $$, Delta has chosen not to go down that road.
Delta’s meltdown seems to be a combination of poor operational management, and failing to use the tools available to them, rather than as Live and Let’s Fly suggests an intentional effort by Delta employees to ruin Thanksgiving travel.