Once again, a major holiday is marked by major cancellations at Delta Air Lines. This time, however, Delta had a month to prepare and seemingly failed to do so. But today’s Christmas cancellations at Delta go much deeper than simply a lack of preparation.
Delta Christmas Cancellations
Delta, known as the leading U.S. carrier when it comes to operational reliability, suffered a very out-of-character meltdown over the Thanksgiving holiday last month. Hundreds of cancellations mounted, stranding or delaying travelers over the busiest travel period of the year.
While Delta placed the blame on the pandemic, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) union representing Delta pilots offered a more detailed explanation. The perfect storm of a late addition of flights to the holiday schedule, training backlog, and COVID-19 offered a more complete explanation for the meltdown.
But after the embarrassing operational performance over Thanksgiving, Delta promised Christmas would be smooth. Thus far, however, it has not been. Per Flight Aware, Delta has already cancelled 127 flights this morning, roughly 11% of its schedule (73 flights are delayed). Yesterday, Delta cancelled 67 flights.
Delta told Live and Let’s Fly:
“A number of factors have pressured our ability to timely staff several dozen scheduled flights, and we apologize to our customers for any inconvenience this may have caused. The overwhelming majority of our customers have been rebooked on flights within several hours of their original travel.”
I spoke to Chris Riggins of ALPA for some background on what happened. He likened today’s cancellations to an oil tanker hurdling down the road at great speeds. Delta sees the problem, it knows what to do, it is doing all it can, but the tanker has so much momentum that is very difficult to stop.
In a memo to pilots dated December 23rd and titled “Holiday Flying,” ALPA foreshadowed the looming problem:
Today, Delta finds itself challenged regarding its published schedule and Delta pilots’ availability to execute it. The Company is in this situaon because of a massive staffing imbalance, as it does not have enough pilots in the right places, bases, and seats to fly Delta Network’s schedule. Further complicaons arose from short noce bookings. Pre-COVID, travelers typically booked months in advance. Now bookings are somewhat short-noce in nature, and Network is le trying to balance shuffling capacity with available pilots over the high-demand holidays.
An influx of short-notice bookings prompted aircraft upguages, which created staffing issues. But the issue goes much deeper.
Riggins explained that the 2020 Delta fleet reductions, particularly the elimination of Boeing 777s and MD-80s, continue to create a staffing shortage, with “an unreasonable amount of pilots not in right seats at the right aircraft at the right time.”
He explained that for every 777 pilot displaced, 14-17 downline training events become necessary. 777 pilots were at the top of the pay scale. When Delta suddenly announced it would retire its 777 fleet earlier this year, it meant 777 pilots moved to the A350, some A350 pilots moved to the A330 or 767, 767 pilots moved to the 737, and so on. Since seniority is king, everyone had to move down to accommodate the displacement of senior pilots on the largest Delta jet. With a sustained backlog of training, the aircraft retirements and subsequent adjustments continue to render many pilots unable to work.
There’s also bad wether in Minneapolis (MSP) and more pilots are testing positive for COVID-19, requiring quarantine not just for them, but for the pilots who may have flown with them.
By The Numbers: Pilots Are Stepping Up
Riggins also drew my attention to green slip awards, which indicate the amount of overtime pilots work. It was way up last month, suggesting that pilots are stepping up where they can and have every incentive do do so (they receive double pay for working overtime). There’s just simply not enough pilots right now to operate the flight schedule. These sorts of cancellations events will continue even with pilots stepping up.
The issue is one of expectations. The flight schedule that is actually operating today is not bad for Christmas. Indeed, spun another way we can talk about how so many pilots and flight attendants stepped up to work today. But by seemingly not planning for the worst, Delta again appears foolish and in fact even worse than on Thanksgiving since it never truly learned its lesson.
Until Delta is able to fill its pilot re-training backlog, expect similar cancellations on other holidays going forward, even with so many stepping up to avoid it.
(H/T: View from the Wing)