Delta’s Mysterious Thanksgiving Meltdown

Filed Under: Delta

Delta is having a very rough holiday, and has canceled well over 500 flights. However, best I can tell, the airline has done nothing to publicly acknowledge this.

Delta canceling hundreds of Thanksgiving flights

Delta usually prides itself in being operationally reliable, and the airline has historically even called itself “the on-time machine.” Unfortunately something seems to be way off for Delta over the Thanksgiving holiday, as the airline has canceled more flights in a few days than it ordinarily cancels in a year.

According to data from FlightAware, Delta has canceled the following number of flights over the current four day period:

  • On Wednesday (two days ago) Delta canceled 4% of its flights (96 flights)
  • On Thursday (yesterday) Delta canceled 18% of its flights (272 flights)
  • On Friday (today) Delta has already canceled 9% of its flights (162 flights)
  • On Saturday (tomorrow) Delta has already canceled 1% of its flights (33 flights)

These numbers are continuing to climb for today and tomorrow, since many of these cancelations are happening on short notice. With Saturday and Sunday expected to be really busy travel days, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot more cancelations then.

Now, before you think “well maybe all airlines are canceling lots of flights,” yesterday United canceled nine flights, while American canceled five flights. So this problem is unique to Delta.

What’s going on with Delta?

The airline known for its incredibly reliable operation is having an incredibly unreliable operation over the Thanksgiving holiday. What’s to blame? A Delta spokesperson says that “a number of factors have pressured [Delta’s] ability to timely staff flights.” That’s all the information the company has shared.

We’re not just talking about a minor schedule disruption, but we’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of flights being canceled, when Delta isn’t facing any unique challenges that other airlines aren’t.

A few thoughts come to mind, given that this allegedly comes down to issues with staffing flights:

  • Presumably this is the most number of passengers Delta has seen in a short period since the pandemic started
  • Even though Delta has avoided pilot furloughs, does the company have a shortage of pilots right now who are able to fly the right planes at the right time (many pilots are still on the payroll but aren’t actually “current,” or are being trained to fly new planes)?
  • Did a lot of employees just call in sick for the holiday, either because they’re actually sick, or because they didn’t want to fly around the holidays with cases at an all time high?
  • Is there an element of cost savings involved, since Delta has to pay employees overtime for working over the holiday?
  • Did this start as a small issue, and it got progressively worse when the right planes and right people weren’t where they needed to be?
  • Has Delta furloughed the people who were great at making the company’s operation so reliable?

Delta has canceled well over 500 flights over the Thanksgiving holiday

The most disappointing aspect of this

Every business makes mistakes and has bad days. What defines them (in part) is how they respond to these mistakes.

What I find disappointing — though unfortunately not surprising — is how Delta has completely failed to be transparent. Unless I’m missing something, the airline hasn’t in any way publicly acknowledged that its operation is struggling.

This is the worst operational reliability we’ve seen from Delta in years, and there’s not a single press release or public acknowledgement about the airline having failed in this case.

I wish this lack of acknowledgement surprised me. Historically Delta operates at a higher level than competitors, and the airline is always quick to brag about its achievements. But the airline also loves to sweep things under the rug when they go wrong, rather than apologizing and being transparent.

Delta hasn’t acknowledged its issues here

Bottom line

Delta is canceling hundreds of flights this week. The airline claims that this is due to a variety of issues that largely involve staffing, though that’s all we know. It’s interesting to see Delta’s operation having some significant issues, while American and United are having reliable operations right now, when you’d think all companies would be facing similar challenges.

Personally what I find most disappointing here is Delta’s lack of acknowledgement about this issue. During good times the airline promotes its superior operations, while when things go wrong the airline goes radio silent and pretends nothing is wrong. That’s not cool.

What do you make of Delta’s mass cancelations for Thanksgiving, and the company’s lack of communication about this?

(Tip of the hat to View from the Wing)

  1. Do they rely (too much) on any Amazon Web Services for any operations? Staff assignments? AWS has had all sorts of problems the past few days.

  2. This has to be fake news. We all know Delta is the absolute best at everything. Just ask the fangirls and boys here.

  3. Thanksgiving has me off my game mocking the legions of OMAAT Delta sycophants. Good to see others are here to take up the slack.

  4. And what about regional airlines that are contracted out by a Delta?
    How are their operations running?
    Delta claims to be the best but this is hardly anything but the best.

    Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

  5. Cancelling a fifth of your flights on Thanksgiving day is unacceptable regardless of the conditions. And no transparency at all, as well as little to no notice. Concerning the lack of leadership being shown. If this was any other airline, everyone would be losing their minds.

  6. I don’t understand all the hostility with Delta. Things happen, people! I know it’s horrible that they cancelled like 18% of flight on the busiest day of the year, and hopefully everyone gets/got where they need to be safely and (relatively) timely. However, things happen.

    Look, we are going through an extremely rough patch right now. Airlines have spent the last few months trimming their expenses to survive. And people have been asked to stay home. It’s understandable that some snafu happened. And it’s yesterday, which means that, in all likelihood, Delta themselves haven’t solved all the mysteries yet.

    So please, calm the **** down. Just because a company have done a good job so far doesn’t mean it will never make a big mistake. Everyone makes mistakes. To err is human. The question is how Delta treat its customers during and after the mistake (and to avoid similar mistakes in the future). These differentiate good companies from bad ones.

  7. It’s a combination of things. A big part of this comes from the pilot displacement bid last month, which caused a pretty big shift in who is flying which equipment. There’s a finite capacity on how quickly a pilot can get trained, and then that gets further constrained as people get exposed to the virus and thus have to quarantine (so you might have the training equipment, but then you don’t have the trainers).

    Add in that from what I’ve heard there’s been a bit more of a sick-out this holiday and it adds up to this.

  8. To some extent an airline needs to have backup plans for a computer snafu. At FRA I once tried to check in the evening before an SQ flight, normally permitted. I tried from FCO and it would not go through, I tried at FRA and it was blocked. It turned out this was the twice yearly check in manually day, a practice by SQ to operate during a computer snafu. Things happen, be prepared.

    Then again, this was DL. I experienced a massive cascading delay on DL due to cabin crew arriving on a late arriving aircraft. when I loudly made people aware of the cause of the delay I was threatened with being deplaned and arrested. Late r on we hit a massive bout of turbulence. This was the only time in decades that I witnessed the drink cart fall on pax and the cabin attendants knocked to the floor. I truly believe that Delta scheduling and pilots not reviewing weather were at fault.
    I tried to visit the lounge at FLL to recover after this incident, they tried to refuse entry because they were closing in 28 minutes.

  9. These were all scheduled flights. No way that they had no pilots or crew for 18% of flights. I would bet on the AWS issue that put many companies out of operations. My Roomba vacuum, my wifi video doorbell system, and even the company I work for were out of operations due to it.

  10. My understanding is that Delta added theses flights to their schedule after the November schedules had been given to their flight crews, generally around mid October. Assuming the above, Delta also made the assumption that people could be enticed to work the holidays for extra pay, but due to people not wanting to work on a holiday they had be given off and the spiking cases, they choose not to work. Normally airlines have a lot of extra crews on call for the holidays to cover the “unusually” high call out rate, but if you’re already understaffed, because shifts were added after the normal time, there will not be enough.
    All of this combined with the possibility of Delta using AWS for their scheduling could lead to this.

  11. @magice – Well since Delta did pretty well before, this is one of those rare chances that Delta haters (for whatever reason — I’m pretty sure they didn’t just start hating Delta because of this incident) can “legitimately” bash the airline. So let them be…

  12. My Delta flight was cancelled yesterday after I had checked in with my wife and 2 kids. The way I was treated by Delta is what differentiates Delta from every other US Airline. They were super apologetic and it took them exactly 2 minutes to book the 4 of us on a United flight that left 15 minutes later. I was a 1K with United for 13 years and I never experienced customer service like that. They would have tried to accommodate the 4 of us on different United flights with 4 different connections. It’s during the worst times that you get to see ones true colors. Delta did amazing.

  13. @MKLDH
    I see things differently.
    Airlines, like fine restaurants, can lose their reputation with one bad experience. Bad can be tolerated but horrendous can never be acceptable. In my experience, when an airline seems to have all actors working with an intent to sc ew the passengers things are unrecoverable. When it is likely that decisions by the airline or flight crew caused a dangerous situation, there is no second chance.

  14. @Donato – I would mostly agree with your argument, except I won’t call this particular meltdown a “dangerous” or “horrendous” one. It is surely frustrating if one’s flight is canceled (been there done there a lot of times, and it sucks no matter how you slice it). But a. it’s not “dangerous” or “horrendous”, which are words I would reserve for air crashes or security incidents; b. if you travel frequently enough, I believe you would agree it is much wiser to choose an airline based on long-term performance rather than one-off like this. That’s why I won’t deny Delta screw this one up on multiple levels, but continue to make Delta the top choice for my next trip.

  15. I don’t believe it’s AWS. Delta’s infrastructure is about 95% on-premise. They have long had among the most custom-built applications in the industry. Much are still not native web-based applications. They’re not easily ported over to run in the cloud without significant engineering effort. In many cases, it’s cost prohibitive to do in the short-run. They’re so specialized and complex. They do use a cloud-based workforce scheduling tool, but it’s for sales / customer service and it’s running in Azure. I believe the crew scheduling is still on-prem.

    I believe these cancellations are due to staffing issues. Fleet retirements and furloughs have complicated shifted the balance of seniority against fleet types. There are a bunch of pilots sidelined. Some are on leave. Some are awaiting training. There is fixed supply of simulator time and trainers. Add in the COVID-19 infection spikes and it’s the perfect storm. There has been a shortage of pilots for A220 and 737 fleets for a while now. It’s all on giant game of dominoes.

  16. Here we go delta fan girls crying over a couple of cancelled flights. Its funny when UA / AA have issues they label it as a disaster. When DL providing crap service it’s all gone mysterious. Just admit that Delta thanks giving period service was just nasty. They better refund pax money rather than moaning about their staffing issues .

    May be you should think twice about judging other airlines so quickly from now on . Problems can happen anywhere. Irrespective of brand . Delta always delayed my flight..attitude Rich towards Y class pax . So here we go ..Thanks Giving service gone pear shaped .
    Yesterday I saw in Atlanta Delta frequent flyers cursing agents . LOL
    Let’s appreciate AA , UA and south west ..they did a great job by providing excellent service. All of delta pax were lined up in front of AA /UA ticket counters yesterday to get a seat on their sold out flights without any luck .

  17. @MKLDH
    The terms dangerous and horrendous were reserved for my particular Delta experience. The Cabin crew was hours late coming off another flight. passengers were boarded early and waited. It seems the crew had little time to review the flight plan and weather and we experienced massive turbulence. When this is coming from a passenger with decades of business and personal worldwide travel experience it has meaning.

  18. Weren’t we asked to not travel and spread Covid? It shouldn’t have been an issue if we were caring for our communities.

  19. @donato

    that’s hilarious. You can’t board early and wait for a cabin crew. There has to be crew in the aircraft to even have one passenger on the plane. Secondly, the pilots always review the flight plan and weather before departure, they are also given “ride reports throughout the flight. If you experienced “massive turbulence” it wasn’t reported before hand. Clearly your decades of “worldwide travel experience” hasn’t taught you much. You might want to make sure you know what you’re talking about before you chime in. I am a crew member and that’s has meaning!

  20. What bothers me is that delta is not saying a word about what went wrong….we r all supposed to just move forward….if this was any other airline it would be on every news channel and they would be put through the ringer…..I now have a much lower opinion of delta….no transparency??? Not cool

  21. Delta staff realise that the scum maga Americans that are willing to risk their own family members by going on vacation in the midst of a peak uncontrolled pandemic, are unlikely to care about fellow passengers/staff/ strangers during a flight.

    Wouldn’t be surprised if they refused to work over Thanksgiving.

  22. @ Cloud Surfer.
    Yes, decades under my belt.
    I might have used the wrong description. The cabin crew was there on board, the flight crew was arriving off another flight.
    I was also wondering at that time how passengers were boarded while they claimed the flight crew had just landed and was on their way. Might there have been another crew in the cockpit just to make the boarding legal?
    I always assumed the Pilots spent time reviewing all factors before boarding. nevertheless. the confluence of this rushed, delayed departure and the massive turbulence which necessitated rerouting to an altitude 10, 000 feet lower immediately made me feel this was not just unavoidable turbulence.
    I respect your knowledge as a crew member, I also state things as they happened and as passengers were informed. I know that I reported the experience as it happened and as passengers were informed, or not informed. If that gives you enough knowledge to negate the experience, that is your opinion only.

    My decades have had experiences as wild as emergency klaxons going off at altitude during a transatlantic flight on Swissair (yes, SR) . That was never explained but it was hinted to be someone hitting a wrong switch.

  23. @Ebin you’re being ridiculous, complaining about “Delta fanboys/girls complaining over a couple flights.”

    This isn’t a couple flights, it’s a couple/few hundred per day, good for 10-20% of the day’s flights.

    For example, ATL-LGA had 5 scheduled flights on Wednesday 11/25. The first three were canceled. The first operating flight was after 5pm.

  24. Ben — I’m a Travelers Aid volunteer at Washington Dulles airport On Sat 21 Nov Delta flew four flights between IAD and ATL between noon and the last flight at 7:30pm. That was an increase of three from the previous Saturday. On Thanksgiving Day they had two scheduled in that timeframe but neither one flew. Both showed on the IAD public website. Neither showed on the departure boards. Working that terminal I went to the Delta gates and asked. Staff told me that, at 1:30pm, Delta had no more departures for the day. I was a little surprised. BUT, American was also done! United had a morning bank [50 in, 50 out] and in the pm only had flights to its hubs. I think Delta just looked and said — we got no passengers! Generally the airport was a ghost town! Keep up the good work!

  25. @Donato
    A cockpit crew is not required for boarding.
    Having worked AA Ops many years, I can say that updated ETDs for flights affected by late arriving flights are typically “short quoted”. If the delay is expected to be less than 10 minutes, we usually don’t even post a new ETD. Reason being is that the late arrival isn’t arriving along with the rest of the flights as scheduled. At a hub, this means the flight isn’t arriving at the same time as dozens of other flights … it’d typically a lone arrival. As such, the crew can often “make up lost time” by cutting corners on the descent, request a runway closer to the gate etc.
    For departing flights with a cockpit crew expected to get to the outbound plane close to departure time, it is SOP to go ahead and board … have the plane ready to go as soon as the pilots are ready … it saves time for everyone.

    The Captain legally shares responsibility with the Dispatcher for the safe operation of the flight. Neither would be willing to risk their FAA Certifications to hastily send a flight out without knowing the weather. The Dispatcher doesn’t have the “time crunch” that a late arriving Captain has. Throughout their shift they’re aware of the “big picture” around the country/globe with weather, turbulence, etc and how everything is affecting traffic flow. They will determine the route of flight and altitude then electronically file the flight plan, send it to FAA ATC and making it available for the Captain to access when able. The Captain already knows the general expected weather for the day from their previous flight. Dispatch is well aware of the pilots running a tad late and may have added notes on changes from earlier forecasts. If the Captain doesn’t agree on any aspect of the flight plan then they’ll contact the Dispatcher and agree on a resolution.

    The sudden, sharp and apparently unexpected turbulence you describe sounds like classic Clear Air Turbulence (CAT). CAT can be hard to forecast because as its name suggests, it isn’t associated with storms, cold fronts, wind patterns etc. It might be there one minute and gone the next. It can be a few jiggles or a major upset. It is the reason why on… Every. Single. Flight …you are told to keep your seatbelt on, even when the seatbelt sign is off.

    The flight plan is based on FORECAST weather and turbulence. But flights operate REALTIME. Pilots and ATC constantly communicate realtime updates with each other. Pilots will report back to the Dispatch Center. The Dispatcher is tracking the flight and will communicate updates as needed.

    TL;DR Your pilots didn’t just hop onboard and leave without having a clue on how the flight will progress. The “system” has other folks also responsible as a “check-n-balance”. There are procedures in place to communicate updates through out the flight. Unexpected turbulence is always a possibility.

  26. I couldn’t get past the incorrect statement that Delta once used the slogan “ the on-time machine”. That great slogan belonged to American Airlines in the 80’s.

  27. @ Steve 64
    Thank you for the detailed response.
    I accept all these facts and things I have heard and yet verified by someone of your stature. My seatbelt is on from boarding on, I have seen aircraft hit before pushback, LOL.
    The confluence of delays and things happening on that flight made me wonder if any decisions were avoided or done in the interest of timing, possibly my bad.
    I did remain with a feeling that Delta staff really does not always care. After a multi hour delay and unpleasant experience the lounge should not have said no to entering with valid credentials 28 minutes before closing. A few moments and a drink (non alcoholic) was all the regrouping necessary to proceed.

  28. All the fault is on the airline here. What about people for not using common sense regarding traveling through the holiday? I thought CDC warned not to travel. I thought record spreading of the virus in the US…So, these people should risk getting infected because their job is for something people voluntarily do.

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