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Delta CEO addresses 'unacceptable' summer of cancellations and delays. Airline leaders should rethink operations and be transparent with customers, experts say.

Marguerite Ward   

Delta CEO addresses 'unacceptable' summer of cancellations and delays. Airline leaders should rethink operations and be transparent with customers, experts say.
  • Analysts say flyers will see additional delays and cancellations this summer.
  • Delta CEO Ed Bastian addressed the difficult summer ahead in a letter to cust

Air travel has gotten so bad that at least one airline CEO is speaking out.

In a recent public letter to customers, Delta CEO Ed Bastian apologized for a mess of cancellations and delays roiling the industry.

"We've spent years establishing Delta as the industry leader in reliability, and though the majority of our flights continue to operate on time, this level of disruption and uncertainty is unacceptable," he said.

Staffing shortages and supply-chain issues have marred the getaways many Americans had been pining for after two summers of pandemic hardships. Analysts told Insider that these messes — in which overwhelmed carriers have canceled thousands of flights — plus the forecasts for summer travel, is a trend, not a blip.

"Bleak" was how the veteran airline executive David Banmiller described the next few months for the industry.

Helane Becker, a senior research analyst who covers airlines at the investment bank Cowen, agreed. "There are not enough people working to handle the number of people flying," she told Insider.

This problem isn't going to be solved overnight, which could make the next few high-demand months more difficult than usual, said Nawal Taneja, an airline consultant with more than 60 years of experience in the industry who's published more than a dozen books on the sector.

Experts said that to mitigate the chaos, airline CEOs should reassess their operations, invest in new technology, and step up communication with customers. They said leaders outside of commercial aviation can rely on many of these principles should crises envelop their own industries.

This article originally published on June 27.

Reassess operations

"There will be many unhappy passengers this summer," said Adam Gordon, a managing director of Boston Consulting Group's airline division.

According to the industry expert, CEOs of the nation's air carriers should recognize the tough spot they're in and be realistic in setting the number of flights they run this summer. Though airlines have already trimmed their schedules, they might need to cut more, Gordon said.

United Airlines said last week that it would slash about 12% of its flights out of Newark, New Jersey, one of its hubs, this summer beginning with the July 4 weekend. And JetBlue Airways — which is battling Frontier Airlines to acquire a rival budget carrier, Spirit Airlines — said in May that it would halt some routes at least temporarily following episodes of delays and cancellations.

Major airlines laid off tens of thousands of workers over the past two years as the pandemic sent demand for seats plunging. The industry is facing shortages in roles such as air-traffic controllers. Compounding this is the aftermath of airline-employee buyouts during the pandemic; unplanned employee time off because of COVID-19 infections or workplace stress; and supply-chain issues.

"The only lever they really have to tackle this operational risk over the next few months is to reduce the amount of flying so that the labor and the infrastructure is there to support the schedule," Gordon said.

While reducing flights is likely to drive prices up, Gordon said the alternative is leaving thousands of passengers with cancellations or major delays. That would be hard to stomach for many passengers, as airfares have jumped by at least 20% from where they were before the pandemic.

"Airline leaders need to be realistic about what can actually be flown," Gordon added.

Invest in technology

Taneja said companies are also dealing with outdated models for forecasting demand.

Prepandemic patterns that analysts used to predict consumer behavior and demand aren't as reliable anymore, Taneja said. COVID-19 waves, government regulations like border closings, and changing consumer behavior are making it harder to forecast demand.

Taneja said that to better predict how customers are choosing flights, airlines should invest in data-sharing operations with other airlines and new technology to render demand forecasts in a matter of days or weeks instead of months.

"We have to look at how we can use new data and how we can better use existing data," Taneja said. "We need to invest in new technologies and machine learning."

Be transparent with customers

While putting new technology in place could take some time, communication is instant. Faced with difficult conditions, airline leaders should do their best to communicate more with passengers who are likely to become frustrated, Gordon said.

"Airline CEOs should think about how they can be radically transparent with their customers and their employees and really make sure people understand what's happening," he said. "They should also make sure that they're taking whatever steps they can to take care of the customers."


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