Delta Air Lines is placing the blame for its 600+ holiday flight cancellations squarely on COVID-19. Meanwhile, the pilot union representing Delta pilots is offering a more nuanced explanation.
Delta Blames COVID-19 For Thanksgiving Cancellations
In a note to employees shared by JonNYC, Delta lays the blame for hundreds of last-minute flight cancellations on COVID-19:
While we knew our operation would be challenged – as it typically is for most busy holidays – we didn’t expect the effects of the sharp increase in capacity in the last part of the month to be compounded by rising number [sic] of positive COVID cases and quarantine requirements among pilots and other factors.
The note was signed by John Laughter, Delta’s Senior Vice President and Chief of Operations.
Delta has set up a “cross-divisional IROP task force” to further probe the root causes and ensure that an encore performance over the Christmas holidays does not occur. (IROP means irregular operations, which encompass delays and cancellations)
Delta is technically correct in that most issues have sprung up from COVID-19. The pandemic has thrown a wrench into operations and created a tsunami that has captured everything within its wake. But the last two words are key: other factors. And in that sense, blaming COVID-19 is like saying COVID-19 is responsible for the man who suffered a massive heart attack after an extended period of neglect.
Pilots Unions Offers A More Nuanced Explanation Of What Occurred
In a lengthy note to pilots from Captain Ryan Schnitzler, outgoing Chairman of the Delta Master Executive Council at the Air Line Pilots Association, a detailed analysis of the root caused was revealed.
Issue #1: Training Backlog
[We’ve] been saying for most of 2020 that Crew Resources’ actions were going to put us at an operational disadvantage when demand rebounded. Back in May, the MOAD [mother of all displacement bids] created an unrealistic amount of movement that was predictably difficult to undertake. We underscored our concerns, centered on the massive amounts of training relative to available simulators, instructors and Line Check Pilots (LCP) capacity. Currently, pilots sit on NQAT for moths, waiting for a training slot. Worse yet pilots are burning needed training slots because the Company insists that they complete training on their displacement aircraft despite having reinvestment awards back to their old category. Pilots who did not choose the VEOP are being trained on aircraft despite having only a few months of availability before mandatory retirement.
In short, Delta has improperly managed training, meaning many pilots have not been re-certified, placing additional pressure on pilot supply. The note also states that many LCP have been retired or displaced, which has also contributed to the backlog. Delta simply does not have sufficient narrow body pilots at this time.
Issue #2: Late Addition of Flights To Holiday Schedule
Sensing and wishing to capitalize on increased demand, Delta added many flights for Thanksgiving week. The problem occurred because the flights were added after pilots had already bid on November schedules.
On top of the training issues, approaching the holiday, Network Planning saw an increase in demand and, rightfully wanting to take advantage of the revenue opportunity, added a significant amount of flights to the schedule. This created a problem. Despite having more pilots on the prayoll than would be needed to cover the flying, many pilots are either UNA [unassinged] or NQAT [non-qualified awaiting training] and unavailable for the understaffed narrow-body fleets. This confluence of events…created yet another perfect storm of operational disruption.
Delta could not get enough pilots to step up (though many did). Coupled with the certification issue, there were not enough pilots to operate every flight.
Issue #3: COVID-19
COVID-19 is an additional factor.
We are witnessing increased levels of infection within our pilot group. Currently, Delta pilots are leading the new infection rate among all employee groups at Delta. In November, we saw a 113% increase to NFLY status. We do not understand why this is the case, but I suspect that one potential cause was the domestic rotations constructed in October and earlier. As you may recall, we saw split rotations with up to five, six and even seven cockpit crew changes per trip, which is an exponentially better way to spread the virus if one of those pilots were infected.
I also had an extended conversation with First Officer Chris Riggins, the ALPA Communications Chairman for Delta. He walked me through the issues and particularly stressed the uncertainly of the weeks to come. Even with light at the end of the tunnel in the form of promising vaccine trials and emergency authorization, we are in for a dark and deadly winter. COVID-19 is impacting pilots and the concern is that the situation will get much worse before it gets better. Delta and the union are working on protocols right now to further protect pilots, which may make more pilots comfortable stepping up for additional duty as new cases surge.
Delta Pilot Union Attacks Me Before All Pilots…
It’s nice to know you’re read…I suppose? I don’t want to make this a personal issue, but the letter from Captain Schnitzler minces no words in attacking my coverage of the Thanksgiving cancellations.
Over the Thanksgiving Holiday, a blogger blindsided us with an online report irresponsibly suggesting that Delta pilots were participating in a sickout to inflict harm on our passengers during the Thanksgiving holiday. The blogger recklessly speculated that this alleged sickout “could be an expression of resentment over the pay cuts coming to all pilots.” Let me unequivocally say that this did not happen, and the idea of it is preposterous.
My original article is here. I did speculate that pilot resentment could be a reason. But I stopped well short of declaring that was the reason. Quite the contrary, I counted up all potential and theoretical reasons for the flight cancellations and offered no declaration of what was actually to blame.
But apparently even the mere insinuation that this could be industrial action provided to stir up a hornet’s nest among pilots and Delta.
Riggins clued me in that Delta pilots were in contract negotiation prior to COVID-19 and that Delta walked away from the table and chose mediation. Those discussions have been halted by the pandemic, but there exists some concern that a “win-win” for pilots and the company is not possible if Delta does not act in good faith. While Riggins was clear to stress that pilots generally feel supported by Delta and that compromises provide mutual wins, there remains tension over the way negotiations over contracts and furloughs have been handled.
The note singled me out in several times, insinuated that I did not reach out to ALPA for comment when that was simply not true, and ended with an admonition:
Do not let one blogger who irresponsibly posted a story loaded with false conjecture designed to attract clicks define our integrity and professionalism. We did our jobs this holiday weekend. As pilots, we went above and beyond as we always do and carried this operations as the leaders that we were hired to be.
Let me address you directly, Captain Schnitzler. I agree that Delta pilots are professional; I took a lot of heat for defending one a few weeks back. Furthermore, I know that many pilots gave up vacation or holiday time with family to step up and help their airline. I also see that Delta poorly managed this and pilots are not to blame in the least. But please understand that when I am not getting answers, I will speculate and there is a big delta, if you’ll pardon the pun, between clearly-stated speculation and stating something as fact.
There is no need to speculate, as we now know precisely why Delta experienced over 600 cancellations during the busy Thanksgiving week. Delta was likely never in a position to operate its full Thanksgiving schedule. While Delta generally blames COVID-19 for the delays, the pilots union has offered a more detailed explanation of what occurred, which points to deeper issues Delta must contend with to avoid a repeat performance over Christmas.