Why Delta’s Operation Is Melting Down Over Thanksgiving

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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 It’s not clear what they gain, especially since there’s no longer active negotiations.

  4. 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.

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. Could it be 5. A substantial percentage of the staff is actually sick? Covid is raging at unprecedented levels right now.

  2. My bet would be on the brain drain. A company cannot have thousands of employees leave and not suffer consequences. My own company is suffering as well. The thousands of baby boomers who are retiring and being replaced with people who have little or no experience. The end of the year is when many employees retire in many industries. While airlines are currently consumed with budget conservation, Delta plans a long range game of superiority. Screwing up during Thanksgiving, would not be good for that reputation.

  3. Omar with #5 is a valid point: “don’t travel by extension means dont facilitate others to travel, or travel myself”.

    Why would i want to work in an airport or plane with a sudden expected influx of people, all of which have been told repeatedly to stay home?

  4. The brain drain at airlines hasnt begun to really show due to the reduced flying. Wait till snow or ice storms hit some major hubs and passenger volume begins to snap back once the vaccine gets wide distribution.

  5. Gary, can you share the statistical model you created that produced a p=.7 for your conclusion. I looked at your GitHub account, but couldn’t find it.

  6. And maybe you could retitle the post as “Why Delta’s Operation *MIGHT BE* Melting Down Over Thanksgiving

  7. They are canceling flights because of the shortage of BISCOFF cookies, they are required by Tsa before and flight leaves, Delta is holding emergency negotiations with Nabisco for A BISCOFF alternative but until then delta will be grounded

  8. We’re in an uncontrolled pandemic and millions of people are infected with coronavirus. Could that have something to do with why Delta employees are calling in sick, or are they somehow immune?

  9. L1011- 500 by Lochheed was the first ” jumbo” that could fly inself as evidenced by British Airways first flight of plane from London to LAX ( they of course have pilots on board just in case). Last one made in1983. So I assume all Boeing and Airbus Jumbo’s do too as Lochheed doesn’t make anymore. The smaller jets must not have that capability. The Delta pilots make more than most doctors who have to have 4 years of STEM heavy straight A’S in college, 4 years med school, 1 yr internship, min 1 year residency ( 3-7 yr residency if specializing), and humongous debt. Why is a Delta pilot upset about an rumored 15% pay cut?

  10. P.S. According to Medpage physicans are making 32% less than last year. What is considered elective surgery like knee replacement, endocrine surgery, etc. had been banned at hospitals but is slowly coming back, so I imagine surgeons took a big hit this year.

  11. It’s not that Delta doesn’t want to pay overtime. I’m working my scheduled day off and being paid double time because of it being a holiday.

  12. If the rest of the employees besides pilots, are taking a 25% reduction in pay/hours and the pilots are only getting a 5% pay cut, mind you pilots already make a lot more money than ground crew and flight attendants, I’d be upset too, wouldn’t you?

  13. I love Delta! Had to travel a couple of times this last year. My husband in wheelchair and had a service dog and the middle seat left open the flights were a dream! On time and staff so professional! At the gate we never had to wat for an employee to push my husbands whellchair.

  14. AA may have only canceled 5 but how many have they delayed by 24 hours or more? It’s all about optics and how their reports look. No one actually gives a shit about how things run there.

  15. This speculative article will eat much post Turkey Day “crow” when our, (Delta’s), passenger numbers come out! It’s not by mistake that we have the best earnings spread sheet of ANY airline!

  16. Probably a reach but could the Amazon outage yesterday have had something to do with it? It was still down as of noon today

  17. I find your article out of sync with the actual problem. Have you not heard that thousands have heeded the advice of the CDC not to travel due to the Covid-19 uptick in positive cases all around the US. Being the end of the month sometimes causes a fluctuation in pilot availability in past years but not with the current issue at hand. I think the reduction in flights was a direct correlation to canceled reservations and a domino effect occurred. It is possible that the recent retirements have left a void in the planning, but there are plenty of Delta employees who know how to deal with irregular airline operations.

  18. How is it Delta employees (whether on payroll or furloughed) able to use their flight privileges and fly for pure pleasure and not necessity during a pandemic? Employees (former or active) use flight privileges to travel around to cities were there are not mask mandates and go pubbing or to restaurants and brag about it on social media then return to work putting co-workers and others in the community at risk then become disgruntled with others who question the mask requirements? I love the hypocrisy on all levels. How is Delta’s other partner companies doing? Delta’s oil refinery? Wheels Up private jet company where Delta is the biggest shareholder? How is it Delta cares about people’s health yet they compromise it every take off and landing? Did Delta care about the toxic uniforms? I feel Delta cares right before they need empathy from the public, employees, or the government.

  19. Jerry, what do you have a problem with? I am in the medical field and was a F.A. for 10yrs with Pan Am. I make it a point to state honest opinions.

  20. My flight was canceled twice this year. If I’m not gonna be able to fly from Austin, Texas to Binghamton, NY, then I would like my money back to I can fly with another airline. I see friends flying all over and I can’t. I want to see my daughter and her family!!!!

  21. Carolyne, A rumored 15 pct cut. Once again do some homework. How about asking what the actual payout is and then comment.

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