Embarrassing: Delta’s Christmas Meltdown

Filed Under: Delta

This is downright embarrassing, at least on the surface. Delta ordinarily prides itself in being incredibly punctual, in the past even calling itself “the on-time machine.”

The airline had an operational meltdown over Thanksgiving, then promised to investigate to ensure something similar wouldn’t happen for Christmas, and now… something similar is happening for Christmas. However, unlike over Thanksgiving, this can at least partly be attributed to weather.

Ouch: Delta’s Christmas cancelations

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day aren’t exactly working out great for Delta. Looking at data via FlightAware:

  • On December 24 Delta canceled 67 flights, or about 5% of its operation; as a point of comparison, American canceled zero flights and United canceled nine flights
  • On December 25 (so far, and it’s only morning) Delta has canceled 123 flights, or about 10% of its operation; as a point of comparison, American canceled one flight and United canceled 28 flights

I’m sure the number of cancelations will only continue to grow throughout the day and over the weekend, given the typical domino effect we see with irregular operations.

In fairness, so far the meltdown hasn’t been quite as bad as it was over Thanksgiving. Just to compare:

  • On the day before Thanksgiving Delta canceled 96 flights, or about 4% of its operation
  • On Thanksgiving Delta canceled 272 flights, or about 18% of its operation
  • On the day after Thanksgiving Delta canceled 162 flights, or about 9% of its operation

However, it’s not even 10AM on the east coast, so I imagine the number of cancelations throughout the day will only continue to grow, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Christmas Day be as bad as Thanksgiving.

What is causing Delta’s operational issues?

First of all, perhaps Delta deserves a bit of leniency for some of the Christmas cancelations. The airline is dealing with weather at some of its hubs, and in particular in Minneapolis, which saw heavy snow. However, not all problems can be attributed to that.

I think it’s safe to assume that at least some of Delta’s operational issues over Christmas are related to the Atlanta-based carrier’s issues over Thanksgiving.

Long story short, Delta has a shortage of pilots right now. Due to the huge number of pilots who have retired and taken early-outs, pilots are having to be retrained on new aircraft, and that’s not an overnight process.

As a result, Delta doesn’t have enough pilots to fly the right kinds of planes, in particular narrow body aircraft.

Under normal circumstances that’s not an issue, but when Delta tries to increase capacity for the holidays, that’s where it becomes problematic. While the airline probably managed to schedule just enough pilots, this left zero room for pilots being sick, for there being operational issues, etc.

It’s totally fair if Delta is simply spread too thin and can’t add capacity. The question is why the airline keeps over-scheduling itself, when this is simply a repeat of what happened over Thanksgiving, a situation that the airline promised to learn from.

It’s also worth acknowledging that American and United face many of the same issues as Delta, but the airlines didn’t experience mass cancelations over either holiday. In fairness, they didn’t deal with quite the same weather, though.

Bottom line

Delta is approaching 200 cancelations between yesterday and today, and I imagine that number will keep growing. Obviously airlines are in a tough spot, and I can totally understand how the airline might have a shortage of pilots available to fly the right planes.

The embarrassing part is that Delta has been by far the worst of the “big three” US carriers when it comes to operational reliability over both sets of holidays.

Ultimately it’s about managing expectations — Delta should have seen this coming and reduced the schedule in advance, rather than leaving so many passengers stranded on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

(Tip of the hat to View from the Wing)

  1. One hundred-plus canceled flights. It would be interesting to know the loads on these flights. Is there any chance these are empty DTW-CIU flights as opposed to say JFK to MIA?

    Regardless, right now, Delta has big issues:

    1) Lots of cancellations
    2) No on-board service, even in domestic first-class and Delta One business-class
    3) Blocking out middle-seats in first-class for flight attendants instead of paying passengers or upgrading elites
    4) Not upgrading elites even when there are available, non-blocked seats in first class
    5) Not rolling over 2020 MQDs to 2021.

  2. Ben. A little more research would have yielded a more factual vs. presumptive reason for the cancellations. Per Delta News Hub, a wicked winter storm hit MSP forcing the preemptive cancellation of 250 flights over the Weds – Thursday period. And, that storm was headed to the Northeast with heavy rain and wild winds. You think maybe that’s why they cancelled so many flights ?? Maybe you’d like to dig a bit deeper on this one.

  3. Seems like this got brushed off on Thanksgiving as a one-off but it seems like there are some cultural /workforce problems at DL … they’ve been the cadillac of on-time performance for a long time and have built their brand on that. They need to work to get whatever this is fixed.

    Delta’s scheduling (understandably) has been all over the map this year. They seem to not have the best advance planning.

  4. I live in Atlanta and we had heavy winds all night (keeping us awake) and ice, though the ice has been limited to the northern parts of the city, it could have extended further south given the temperatures. I’m sure this isn’t a primary driver, but I can understand how flights destined for Atlanta last night or in the early hours of today might have been cancelled with passengers re-booked on later flights.

  5. @FNT Delta Diamond…regarding your fifth point…I received an email from delta on December 23 saying mine will rollover to 2021.

  6. Whatever Delta did/is doing is the best thing to do. They’re the best. They’re always right.

    At least that’s what their sycophants on OMAAT always tell me.

  7. This is largely due to the crazy storm we got December 23rd here in msp. Delta did their very best to fly as many flights as they could. 8 inches of snow, 40 degree temperature drop, wind gusts that peaked at 58mph. No carrier or hub would have weathered this storm any better. I’d apologize for your post, it is misleading and paints all the employees who busted their butt in that storm unfairly. Personally, I only lasted 20 minutes plowing my driveway..imagine slinging bags in it!

  8. @adam
    It’s a lot more than just MSP. Lucky barely even talked about those cancellations. They’d be on top of what he talked about

  9. the winds in NYC was so bad, that I my flight from Miami to LGA did 3 go arounds only to be diverted to EWR,and flight lasted an hour longer then scheduled. Can’t blame Delta for cancellations during such weather

  10. Nothing against Delta the airline. Some great posts tweaking the blindly loyal DL sycophants that hang out on these forums. Keep em coming ha ha.

  11. @FNT Delta Diamond, some of your points are a little misleading.

    Delta’s service on board is reduced, but all passengers in all classes are being offers a snack bag containing a water and other snacks – when I flew on 12/22, mine had a package of Goldfish, a chocolate, and a bag of almonds. In first you are offered beer or wine (I’ve only flown domestic since the pandemic so can’t speak to the international experience). Every flight I’ve been on (including 12/22 and 12/20, this week) FAs were proactively offering refills of beer and wine as well. There is no liquor or soda, but there is still a service. Personally, I am more comfortable with fewer people around me wanting to eat or drink on board since that motivates them to take their masks off. I’ve flown every few weeks since the pandemic started for work, but I still haven’t eaten inside a restaurant since March 12, and won’t do so until 21 days after the 2nd dose of my vaccination.

    Before the pandemic when FAs or pilots needed transit space, it was typically in first. So, it makes sense that they would continue the same type of practice when needing to create space between FAs to reduce transmission risk. Additionally, every flight I’ve been on has seen movement on the upgrade list – anecdotal, but on my 12/20 flight I was 2nd on the list while the entire 1st cabin showed as full, but I still got a gate upgrade.

    I’ll admit I’m not really bothered by Delta not rolling MQDs over, but I am thankful they are rolling all our MQMs over. From what I can tell, American is only rolling over qualification miles earned Q4 of this year, and I’m not sure if United is rolling any qualification miles over. No airline is in a great place, but I’ll continue to fly the one that is taking sensible precautions, even if those precautions happen to also cut costs.

  12. So if MSP was basically closed two days ago, wouldn’t that mean the IRROP doesn’t have much to do with pilots training for new aircraft types? Major hub closed for snow. Crews out of position. You know. Winter.

  13. While DL strives to ensure the highest possible dispatch and flight completion rate, they’re far from being an “on time” machine nor do they ever really strive for punctuality. That’s all a bit of an exaggeration in your narrative.

  14. BNA had some cancellations today do to terrorism today in the adjoining downtown, it interrupted communication equipment after the explosion.

  15. “The On Time Machine” slogan belongs to American Airlines since 1988 and it was never used by Delta

  16. Crew Scheduling . . . ahead planning
    To me, it sounds like most of you guys should work there! . . . or better NOT!
    Would be a disaster.
    Airlines (no matter which one) plan at least 1 month ahead of time, so Christmas flight rosters of Crews were long finished on US Thanksgiving!
    Little or hardly any change to change planning or rostering.
    I still don’t understand middle seats blocked would have to do with cancellations or not grounding the MD-90’s could change the situation, as most of the cockpit staff is qualified on all Airbus cockpit planes now and VERY versatile that way, but you sure can’t plan on bad weather or some not so loyal employees who just love to call in sick, even on short notice.
    It’s not like that 1000’s of them sitting in the Frequent Flyer Lounges until they are called for Duty.
    As the world also knows, publicity (true or not at all) in the US, is just simply a key factor.
    If people simply believe what they get to hear or been told, that’s there problem and if DELTA says “promised to investigate to ensure something similar wouldn’t happen for Christmas”
    ….. i guess i don’t need to point out what to believe on US American promises, right?
    So, learn from it just as DELTA has to and if it happens too often, DELTA will have to pay for it so badly, everybody will see it then!
    As long as there is no stricter rules in US aviation, those sucky airlines will play with there passengers, just as they deserve it.
    Just reminding you of EU rules and penalties!
    Reading the mass of flights over the holidays and there load factors, it makes me wonder, . . . did COVID already disappear in the US?
    Good luck to all stranded and those, just keep on spreading the Virus.

  17. You didn’t have a Christmas post this year with your family Christmas card or wishing us readers a merry christmas…but its ok, I hope you’re all having a very Merry Christmas Ben, Tiffanny, and everyone else!!! 🙂

  18. This is not the first time you refer to Delta as the “on-time machine”. IIRC this is however an ad campaign from American that can be found on youtube. Regs.

  19. Weather is indeed a problem to every airline this time of year. How did the other major airlines deal with it? How did Southwest deal with it as they have all 737? As a former international F.A. for 10 years- when a union with the airlines wants to get back at their company or get their way they do ” work to rule” which means if you follow the work Manuel then nothing ever gets done or on time. Sounds like a little work to rule is also responds able.

  20. Funny, Delta attempts to immulate American in so many ways.
    Unfortunately for Delta they do not have AA FLEET!
    When flyers return, AA HAS THE FLEET.

  21. On 12/23 at 9:30 p.m., I received a text from Delta saying that my flight, scheduled for twelve hours later, had been cancelled. I called Delta to reschedule – the 26 minute hold time was ultimately over an hour; when I got a hold of a man overseas, he hung up on me. I then waited over an hour to speak with a woman named Krishna, who offered me a refund or a four hour layover and losing a night on my reservation. I learned that there were “staffing issues” for my flight.
    I tried rebooking on Delta – they had offered me the nonstop on another airline, but when I clicked on the offer, it would give me an error.
    I emailed customer care and I still haven’t heard back three nights later.

  22. My flight ,DL1501, was canceled 36 hours before Christmas Day. Leaving me the option to either fly all day on a different route or to pay three times more on a different carrier that got me in the morning of Christmas like my direct Delta flight would have.
    According to the seat map which I kept an eye on multiple times a day, the load was low. Weather wasn’t an issues and neither was there maintenance issues with the A/C.
    They offered me $25 for the inconvenience. What a slap to the face to a paying customer who wanted to get home to spend time with their family on Christmas. Although SLC is a Delta hub, I’ll keep flying AA and UA because they have treated me right in the past.

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