Delta Pilot Shortage Leads To Canceled Flights, No Seat Blocking

Filed Under: Delta

Delta Air Lines used to be known for its operational excellence, but the Atlanta-based airline now can’t seem to consistently run its scheduled operation on holidays. What’s going on?

Delta canceling dozens of flights over Easter

Delta has so far canceled 74 flights today, compared to five cancelations at American and one cancelation at United. It’s expected that these operational issues will continue at least into tomorrow, so don’t expect flights to be back to normal tomorrow.

That’s a significant number of cancelations, though what makes this worse is that Delta seems to be making a ritual of having issues over holidays. Delta had a Thanksgiving meltdown with over 600 cancelations, which it essentially blamed on coronavirus. Then Delta also canceled dozens of flights over Christmas. And now there’s Easter…

Delta temporarily suspends seat blocking

Delta is the only major US airline to consistently block seats in all cabins, and we know that the airline will end this policy on May 1, 2021. Well, for Sunday and Monday, Delta will lift its current seat blocking policy, to be able to accommodate as many customers as possible.

I see both sides here, but my gosh this is bad form:

  • On the one hand, if you’re going to have huge operational issues I can appreciate that the priority is getting as many people onto planes as possible; Delta claims that an “overwhelming” number of people have been rebooked for same day travel
  • On the other hand, many people go out of their way to book Delta and even pay extra because of this seat blocking policy

Delta needs to do something substantial and proactive for those who aren’t getting an empty seat next to them as promised, given that this has been a point of differentiation for the airline.

Why is Delta having operational issues?

Delta claims that these cancelations are due to “various factors,” including:

  • Staffing
  • Large numbers of employee vaccinations
  • Pilots returning to active status

On the most basic level this comes down to a shortage in pilot staffing:

  • 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
  • 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
  • This issue is exacerbated by Delta’s seat blocking policy, which allows the airline to only offer significantly less capacity than competitors

To be clear, it’s totally fair if Delta isn’t in a position to add capacity, and is spread too thin. The question is why the airline keeps over-scheduling itself — this is the third time this has happened over a holiday. The airline promised to learn after Thanksgiving, but it still hasn’t.

Bottom line

Delta is having some significant operational issues over Easter, as the airline has canceled dozens of flights due to an ongoing pilot shortage. To accommodate as many passengers as possible, the airline is also suspending its typical seat blocking policy.

Obviously it’s a tough time for airlines in terms of scheduling and staffing, but this is the third time Delta has been in a situation like this since late last year, while American and United haven’t. What’s going on?

Can anyone make sense of why Delta isn’t learning from its mistakes? Were any OMAAT readers impacted by these operational issues? 

(Tip of the hat to View from the Wing)

  1. I don’t know how Delta can temporarily lift capacity controls and then bring back only to left them in 4 weeks’ time.

    This is the problem. Delta has spent the last year telling us and paying experts to affirm that flying in a middle seat was unsafe and dangerous. But suddenly it isn’t? Who actually wants to sit in a middle seat if they have trusted Delta and the experts that middle seats were unsafe?

    Delta should figure out ASAP a way to sell the middle seat as extra space.

    I flew Friday. The gate agent was too lazy to process upgrades so an entire row of first class went empty (there are no capacity controls in first-class besides an empty seat next to you) and also gave off-duty flight attendants and pilots seats in comfort-plus even though there were a couple passengers on the comfort-plus upgrade list.

  2. Can I get a refund? Delta has been charging higher prices which I paid expecting a blocked seat.

  3. Count on Delta to do exactly the right thing, at exactly the right time.

    As always.

    I love being part of the OMAAT commentariat that worships Delta.

  4. If they wanted to sell more seats for the holidays, they should have reactivated the larger jets they parked

  5. Just found out I am on one of these impacted flights when I got to the airport and was assigned a middle seat. I switched my flight from another airline to DL yday and paid more to have a blocked seat. Awful job Delta. Will be switching to other airlines that at least don’t promise something they can’t delivery. Also on their website they are still selling tickets! They are already beyond their seat blocking capacity but continue to sell more tickets. Pretty greedy if you ask me.

  6. @FNT Diamond

    The “off duty” crew you complain about were likely dead heading crew who have been flying multiple legs throughout the day and legally need a resting leg before continuing with work. Instead of assuming Delta crew are lazy, you consider the myriad of internal factors you know nothing about.

  7. This is delta’s fault.

    No airline is perfect. I might like delta but I fully blame them for this.

    They are so focused on their shareholders stock price and look what happened.

  8. @Gate Agent: I didn’t call off-duty crew lazy. I called the gate agent who failed to process the upgrade list, both in first and comfort-plus. Upgrades even during the pandemic are a guaranteed benefit. I would estimate 60% of my flights since April 2020 have went out with empty seats with eligible passengers on the upgrade list, even when accounting for seat blocking or capacity,

  9. Now that capacity restrictions have been suspended for the weekend, Delta should just lift the seat blocking now instead of waiting until the end of April. Stop the charade. Of course, Delta and Delta’s hired experts have spent most of the last year telling customers that it was dangerous and unsafe to fly economy in a middle seat or in first-class next to a non-family member. So it is unsafe Tuesday but totally safe today? Or unsafe April 30, but safe May 1?

  10. AUS to LAX flight tonight cancelled. (Had seen lots of available seats on that one and had been cleared for upgrade)

    Rebooked on an earlier afternoon flight and it seems this flight has now been “delayed” now… I hope it doesn’t get cancelled.

    What a mess … and adds more stress and anxiety to an already anxious flyer.

  11. It’s honestly amazing that delta keeps having these issues. They aren’t the only airline with staffing issues but they are the only one that can’t seem to figure out how to make it work or they don’t know how to change schedules?

  12. Corporate too busy focusing on politics? I flew Delta international last week. Four times between check in at DCA and boarding at JFK they checked my photo ID, passport, and other documents. The same process exists for the return. My boarding passes are stamped several times with “DOCS-OK.” But the state of Georgia can’t have photo ID checks for voting?

    Delta looks like a bunch of buffoons. Start paying attention to your core business and let the citizens of Georgia deal with their politics.

  13. @David – you don’t seem to realize that any voter ID changes in the Georgia bill are a Trojan horse to enact all sorts of voting restrictions targeting, shocker, people of color.

    Republicans can’t win and won’t update their policies to fit the 21st century? Voting restrictions are your answer!

  14. Gate Agent,

    You have more than confirmed one of my biggest peeves about many airlines. I am a long time frequent flyer, with multiple airlines (sometimes several at the same time) and know whereof I write.

    Airlines have absolutely no business seating employees in ANY kind of preferred seating ahead of loyal customers. I got a lot of upgrades because of my top tier flyer status, and nothing pissed me off more than to not get that upgrade and see employees seated in first class, and yes, sometimes employees families, including children.

    Nothing says “we really don’t care about you, you’re just a customer” than that. Unless it was those instances where I didn’t get upgraded, and uniformed off-duty crew is assigned an entire economy exit row to themselves, whilst I’m stuck in a middle seat.

    And the idea of first class seats going empty while any tier of frequent flyers is not upgraded could be added in.

    Also, not as you said “dead heading crew” needing their “rest”. They can rest just as well In economy. If it’s good enough for a paying passenger, it’s got enough for a non-rev!

    And often, these crew persons are in realty just commuting to their assigned work airport, because they can’t be bothered to physically move homes when they are reassigned (especially if they request the reassignment). Or, they are commuting back home and pocketing their lay over per diem.

  15. Sadly, Delta pilots have been posting on chat forums all week long about how many uncovered flights there have been and then, come to the weekend, and the rubber band breaks.

    The first holiday staffing problem was unfortunate, the second time was an embarrassment for Delta, but with the 3rd and subsequent times, it’s time for a serious sit-down.

    After a week of Delta being in the news for reasons that have nothing to do with delivering its usual fine quality service, today’s meltdown has resulted in more damage to the Delta brand in a shorter period of time than perhaps has ever occurred.

  16. Perhaps Delta should worry less about being woke and more about running their company

    UA-NYC – Over 70% of Americans want ID checked for voting, including a majority of democrats. Shoot even most third world countries require it (or do the finger with perm ink so you can’t vote again and only one day to vote). The new bill actually expands voting rights quite a bit in GA, it simply isn’t as permissive as COVID year. Personally I think its racist as h3ll of white democrats to think blacks and other minorities are incapable of getting a free id (that they need for dozens of over things too) in order to vote.

  17. @some guy I tend to agree with you. Less than 5% of potential voters don’t have an ID. If they truly cared they would work with groups to get ID’s for this group. But letting people be victims needing help is much easier

  18. I agree with David; stop the political crap Delta….stay in your lane; just RUN the damn Airline, for Gods Sake!! Stay out of the headlines! The political swamp will sink you!!

  19. Two years ago my bag arrived opened and missing one shoe and my whole shaving kit with a $400 bottle of cologne in it. That was a first class ticket. No amount of inquiring lead to delta doing anything to compensate. Although not a very frequent traveler I always flew Delta and almost always first class. Perhaps Jet blue or American in the future?

  20. During this pandemic, I’ve flown twice with Delta, twice with United. United’s on time performance and customer service was superior to Delta’s on both occasions. Due to Delta’s incompetent scheduling and staffing, my flight over Thanksgiving was cancelled. This is the third holiday in six months that they have cancelled numerous flights for. The other airlines seem to be operating just fine. I will no longer fly with Delta.

  21. What would employees getting vaccinations have anything to do with this? Did you mean employees taking vacations? lol

  22. Delta is the only carrier I fly, domestically, and I’m surprised to hear they are having problems with a pilot shortage.

    I would have expected the opposite, with many pilots and flight attendants furloughed by the pandemic, and just waiting for the phone to ring, so they can come back to work…

  23. Just boarded a Delta flight and the flight is completely full. I’m disappointed as this was the only reason I booked them. Between this and the CEO gaff, I’m not happy. Delta during normal ops is consistently pretty good, but I’ve never had an IROPs with Delta that they’ve handled well.

  24. @Tony
    The FAA is mandating flight crews can’t fly for 48 hours after getting either dose of the Pfizer or Moderna and after the J&J vaccine.

    Most likely why that’s a factor is that as states increase their eligibility you have crews not being able to fly for days on end due to FAA requirements and meaning its going to be a mess for crew-scheduling trying to figure out who can cover flights for pilots who are getting the vaccine and thus are grounded for 2 days.

    Not a great excuse but understandable.

  25. All the sore loser conservatives are now upset because Delta came out against Jim Cr0w 2.0 so now they will latch on to anything to complain. We SEE YOU.

  26. It’s a little surprising that a website, would phrase the question “Why is Delta having operational issues?”. The reason I say that is because airline operations are incredibly complex, probably one of the most complex in terms of business models. To compare why United/American isn’t having this problem and Delta is, is also a bit disingenuous.
    Perhaps the author should watch an old CNBC program called “A Week at American Airlines”. The show essentially followed all the activities of one upcoming flight. The activities and planning for that flight begins about week before the flight actually occurs, then the show covers everything, including the flight itself and all the post flight activities.
    It is an incredibly complex set of issues and activities. Don’t even think about the other things regarding airline operations, such as planning to buy 100 aircraft over the next 10 years while trying to guess the economic situation and committing 10’s of billions of dollars well in advance.
    So, yeah, it’s entirely possible something went wrong or unplanned. All it takes is something potentially inconsequential, such as maybe a couple of pilots testing positive for covid-19, but they ran into so many people that have to quarantine that maybe it impacted staffing.
    Any number of things can throw a wrench into the operations which is why the folks in airline dispatch/operations have such a difficult job.

  27. The heads of crew scheduling and flight schedules need to go, like yesterday. Apparently they don’t talk to each other… Clearly DL is not learning from its mistakes and it starts at the top.

  28. Expecting people to pay more with the promise of providing a service they don’t ultimately get is the worst they could do… However well run DL may be, it is acts like these that expose their true nature. If they actually cared about the customers (and their health), they wouldn’t have done this. I hope people finally wake up and realize that all this time DL was always after the ‘revenue premium’, and not ‘passenger health’.

  29. Delta AGAIN Fails over the Holidays! The Staff Shortage of Pilots due to inability to get them retrained on Aircraft in a timely manner is EXACTLY why the PSP should have never been approved. They were QUICK to take the Funding but squandered every opportunity to be ready to move forward when there was a blip of a recovery. And that Blocked Middle Seat Policy……pure BS…..that was Nothing more than a Publicity Stunt and Everyone Knows It. Like They F’n care. Delta is NOT the Golden Fleece and hopefully this Wakes People Up!.

  30. Good job, o great Delta – the best of the best US airlines.

    I laugh at any of their frequent fliers hoping for an “upgrade” to “Comfort+”. What a great innovation for their valued guests.

  31. I flew SEA-LAX-DTW on April 1st. LAX-DTW was on the A350, so I assumed I would get a first class upgrade with that many seats in first. That didn’t go my way. (I guess there were a bunch of Diamonds on the flight). I figured I could use a couple extra MQMs this year, and plus wanted to try the A350. That backfired about a week before the flight. So be it. I find my seat in comfort plus, and am shocked that towards the end of boarding a guy comes with a boarding pass for the seat next to me. That ground my gears, because as has been said by others, Delta did charge a hefty premium compared to other airlines for blocking seats.

  32. If you are going to market the fact that the middle seat is empty then you should be providing that. It is not appropriate to start throwing people into those middle seats especially as covid cases are increasing across the US. People may very well have selected Delta because of that middle seat policy.

  33. Seat blocking. So funny. Do people really think it makes them safer. It’s not even the appropriate distance apart. I saw a political comic cartoon that describes this well. We social distance and then we get on the plane where we are packed in, so what is the real effect on all of these policies…

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