Delta canceled over 300 flights just before Christmas after Thanksgiving travel saw a similar number of issues, revealing a troubling trend for the airline

Delta canceled over 300 flights just before Christmas after Thanksgiving travel saw a similar number of issues, revealing a troubling trend for the airline
A Delta Air Lines Boeing 767.Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto/Getty
  • Delta Air Lines reported canceling 325 flights in the days leading up to Christmas, which was the busiest travel season of the pandemic.
  • A perfect storm of bad weather and a lack of pilots forced Delta to cancel the flights over a three-day period starting December 23.
  • Thanksgiving similarly saw over 600 flight cancellations at the airline, revealing a trend of poor performance during the holidays.

While a white Christmas is a dream for many, it can be a nightmare for airlines.

Delta Air Lines was caught in the crosshairs of a winter storm that fell on the pandemic's busiest travel week, causing 325 flight cancellations in the days leading up to Christmas and 130 on the holiday itself.

Wind gusts of up to 40 miles per hour and snowfall affected Delta's hub in Minneapolis starting on the Wednesday before Christmas, as the airline reported, that continued into the following day. The initial storm prompted Delta to cancel 250 flights and rebook passengers but that was just the beginning.
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What began as a weather issue quickly turned into a staffing issue as the airline found itself with not enough pilots. Delta hasn't furloughed pilots but has reduced its workforce through voluntary separation programs during the pandemic that saw over 2,000 pilots depart with the airline, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in mid-July.

Chris Riggins, a Delta pilot and Air Line Pilots Association communications chairman for the Delta Air Lines Executive Council, told the Washington Post that the issues were the result of shrinking pains.

"Due to the downsizing of the airline and trying to manage the size of the workforce … there's been some training issues that's been created from moving pilots from airplane to airplane and getting them retrained," Riggins told the Post.
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Four aircraft types were retired by Delta during the pandemic including the Boeing 777, McDonnell Douglas MD-88, McDonnell Douglas MD-90, and Boeing 737-700, while a new plane, the Airbus A220-300, was onboarded. The country's second-largest airline before the pandemic, Delta had been known for its aging fleet and the pandemic was allowing the airline to finally address the issue.

The move was intended to give Delta a streamlined fleet of modern aircraft like the Airbus A350-900 XWB and A330neo, which would maximize the efficiency of a pilot pool and reduce training costs. The airline plans to retire more in the next half-decade including the Boeing 717 and 767-300ER. Delta told Business Insider that 170 flights were canceled due to crew issues on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, with 40 reported on the former and 130 on the latter.
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The low travel numbers that have become commonplace during the pandemic didn't give Delta a reprieve either. The Transportation Security Administration reported over a million passengers passed through their checkpoints on six days between December 18 and December 27 with Sunday seeing 1.3 million, the most since the pandemic began, as Business Insider's Allana Akhtar reported.

Over two million flyers passed through TSA checkpoints in the two-day period when Delta canceled 325 flights. More travelers took to the skies on Christmas than they did on Thanksgiving, the data shows, despite the country being knee-deep in a COVID-19 surge and warnings from public health officials not to travel.

Any increase in flyers should've proved beneficial to cash-strapped airlines but it only compounded the weather issues. Delta is among the last airlines to block middle seats on its airplanes, limiting rebooking options for stranded travelers as crowding planes to accommodate passengers would violate its new "Delta CareStandard" tenets, which Business Insider experienced firsthand on a recent visit to Delta's operation in New York.
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Read more: Airline CEOs say it doesn't matter how well they protect passengers from COVID-19 - travel demand won't bounce back until the pandemic ends

"A number of factors have pressured our ability to timely staff several dozen scheduled flights, and we apologize to our customers for any inconvenience this may have caused," Delta spokesperson Anthony Black told Business Insider. The statement echoes a similar Delta issued after Thanksgiving when 615 flights were canceled for similar staffing issues.

"The overwhelming majority of our customers have been rebooked on flights within several hours of their original travel," Black said.
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And while passengers were impacted by the cancellations, on-time performance is even more crucial now for airlines as they'll be transporting even more precious cargo than paying customers, the COVID-19 vaccine. Delta is one of the many passenger carriers enlisted in the mass transportation effort to get the pandemic-ending drugs from their manufacturers to the end-user.

Rob Walpole, vice president for Delta Cargo, told Business Insider in a prior interview that its Thanksgiving mishap was an isolated incident but the Christmas week cancellations reveal an unsettling new trend that may jeopardize the goodwill gains that Delta has made during the pandemic if continued.

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