Delta Blames Thanksgiving Cancelations On Coronavirus

Filed Under: Delta

Delta had an extremely rough Thanksgiving. While the airline is typically known for its operational reliability, it canceled over 600 flights over a four day period, including over 270 cancelations on Thanksgiving day alone. As a point of comparison, both American and United ran nearly flawless operations over the same period.

At the time a Delta spokesperson said the cancelations were because “a number of factors have pressured [Delta’s] ability to timely staff flights.”

Well, we now have a bit more information about these cancelations, as both Delta’s management and pilots union have chimed in on what happened.

How Delta management explains the cancelations

As noted by @xJonNYC, John Laughter, Delta’s SVP & Chief of Operations, wrote a letter to employees about the rough weekend. His explanation for these cancelations boils down to the following:

“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 of positive COVID cases and quarantine requirements among pilots and other factors.”

Hmmm. So Delta knew it was running its operation with little wiggle room, and it didn’t expect there would be a rise in coronavirus cases among pilots? I’m neither an epidemiologist nor do I work in airline schedule planning, but I feel like I could have guessed that?

In all honesty, Delta seems to be conveniently shifting blame to coronavirus, rather than taking accountability for scheduling too many flights with the resources that the airline currently has. Delta isn’t the only US airline dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, yet this didn’t pose an issue for American or United.

The company will be setting up a task force to make sure this doesn’t happen again:

“We’ve set up a cross-divisional IROP task force to learn what were root causes and to ensure we don’t have a repeat experience for Christmas or any time in the future.”

How Delta pilots union explains the cancelations

The head of Delta’s pilots union wrote a letter to pilots explaining what he considers to be the root cause of all of these cancelations. Often unions blame management for everything, but this explanation is fair and level-headed, in my opinion.

The claim is that a lot of this comes down to a general shortage of pilots available to fly the right planes. In other words, Delta is short on narrow body pilots:

  • Delta is at an operational disadvantage when demand rebounds due to the huge number of pilots who are having to be retrained on aircraft (due to retirements, early-outs, etc.), and Delta doesn’t have that many simulators; apparently Delta is even “wasting” simulator time training some pilots on new aircraft when they’re just months from mandatory retirement
  • Not only does Delta not have enough simulators, but the airline is also short on line check pilots, who are responsible for the training; it could take six to nine months to train new line check pilots
  • While the airline has enough narrow body planes for an increase in capacity, it’s short staffed on narrow body pilots, so can’t really increase capacity in the short term

But then apparently coronavirus has also been an issue:

  • Pilots have the highest cases of coronavirus of any work group at Delta, with a 113% increase in pilots reporting sick in November; while the union doesn’t understand why this is the case, there are two theories
  • One theory is that in October the company had rotations whereby there would be up to seven pilot changes per trip; in other words, while you may otherwise fly with one other pilot for the entire trip, Delta frequently changed pilots with each segment, increasing the risk of coronavirus spreading for situations where a pilot was positive
  • The other theory is that coronavirus is apparently spreading in the flight training center, and the union and management are in discussions about how this can be mitigated; it’s suggested that pilots wear masks in both the flight deck and simulator, even though this isn’t required

Bottom line

Delta had over 600 flight cancelations over Thanksgiving, which is usually more than the airline has over the course of several years.

While Delta is usually great about running a reliable operation, the airline isn’t particularly good about being transparent when things go wrong, as the airline had almost no public, customer-facing communication during this meltdown.

Through communications to employees from both management and the union we have learned the root cause of the issues — essentially Delta has a shortage of narrow body pilots, as retraining pilots is complicated. The airline didn’t have the ability to increase capacity by much to begin with, so when you combine that with any other minor issue, the results can be bad.

Clearly Delta wasn’t in a position to increase capacity to the extent that it did over Thanksgiving.

What do you make of Delta’s explanation for the cancelations?

  1. At the moment frontline staff can’t take the risk , even if it’s just a regular cold. Flights with light loads , assuming the cargo is also light , may be consolidated.

  2. Whatever Delta did/does was/is the right thing.

    Everyone here knows they’re the best.

    Now the typical OMAAT comment sycophants can take the day off.

  3. I don’t think Delta can really be faulted here. People who did not need to travel should have just stayed home. There was no need to run around this year, given the pandemic. Except for those who had to travel for work, had family emergencies, and the like, those that just got on a plane because they craved normality are simply selfish and inconsiderate and have put countless lives at risk, including Delta employees.

  4. @ shoeguy — Sorry, you don’t blame Delta for adding capacity it wasn’t capable of offering? You realize the airline wasn’t forced to add all of this capacity, right? Keep in mind that airlines choosing to add capacity contributed to the number of people traveling.

  5. Delta can absolutely be faulted for failing to supply a service if they knew they were running close to their capacity. We’re a little late in the pandemic to be sloppy with operations and planning.

  6. Maybe if Delta wasn’t stupidly blocking out middle seats it wouldn’t have had a capacity issue.

    And don’t me started on how Delta wants to make us all alcohols by serving as much beer and gas station wine as we can drink at 7 am but won’t serve coffee or Diet Coke, even in first-class or Delta One between LAX and JFK.

  7. Sounds like Delta scheduled to many flights for the resources at hand – including a margin for the unexpected. Not typical for them for sure. The degree of the miss is surprising.

  8. @FNT Delta Diamond

    Southwest, Alaska, and JetBlue were also blocking middle seats during the Thanksgiving holiday, yet they didn’t have cancelation issues, so I doubt that was the main cause. Just bad planning on Delta’s end.

  9. The statement from John Laughter refers to quarantine requirements. I really wonder what those requirements are for Delta, and how they compare to the other airlines, and other companies in general.

    I work in the healthcare field, and at the beginning of the pandemic we were quarantining a lot of employees for Covid exposure. This just could not last very long–we do not have enough people to allow that. Now it is more focused on those who are symptomatic. But if Delta is still benching everyone in the flight training center for 2 weeks because they came in contact with one positive case, that could really affect operations.

  10. Balancing crew schedules with the possibility of positive tests (and consequent contact tracing procedures) is a nightmare right now, especially if you want to do it right. My own airline’s operation was hit with a spate of positive tests in September where suddenly our crew positives spiked by nearly 300% – and due to the testing/results schedule resulted in an average of 3.5 people per positive test having to be placed in quarantine (we maintained block pairings on a weekly basis to mitigate against positive tests, but the tests and results were conducted over the schedule switchover period when pairings changed thus creating additional exposures). We managed to make it through the critical period thanks to a very solid scheduling team and very cooperative crews willing to fly absolute max legal hours, but it was touch and go for a few days – just one more positive test and we would have had to start cancelling flights.

    So yeah, much smaller scale, but I can easily see how it could quickly spiral out of control at Delta or anywhere else. It’s just that the excrement hit the fan over Thanksgiving, which magnified it.

  11. This is because DL blocks middle seats. COVID 19 is just an easy excuse. Also if we as a society start forcing anyone that could have been exposed to someone with COVID to lockdown good luck getting the basics like food. Hysteria at it’s best and only going to get better.

  12. Delta’s a mess! They overplayed their hand and tried to blame it all on the virus instead of poor planning. I believe the pilots on this one. Seems anything that goes wrong now, in any business, is blamed on COVID.

  13. What this goes to show you is that some of these airline mergers should not have been approved by the federal government. We desperately need an additional full-service, national airline with international partners, not a regional or mostly regional carrier. American, United, and Delta need real competition. Southwest, JetBlue, and Alaska just can’t do it. Imagine if the USMCA replacement for NAFTA had lifted cabotage and Air Canada or Aeromexico could compete within the United States.

  14. Haven’t look at their current schedule, but couldn’t they operate more wide body between hubs and transcon (reduce frequency but free up some narrow bodies). Would have liked learning about that. Maybe they already did that to some extent.

  15. There was (as usual) a large disconnect amongst us-ians with corona virus “news” hype versus reality.

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