Here’s why one day of thunderstorms turned into a five-day Delta meltdown

Airline cancels 3,000 flights for week due to storm and fallout

One day of thunderstorms in Atlanta caused a meltdown of Delta Air Lines’ flight operations this week, with the carrier caught flat-footed and still struggling to recover four days after the storm passed.

The storm's hit to Delta's hub at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and ensuing issues with crew and aircraft positioning led the airline to cancel some 3,300 flights over five days — making the fallout greater than the airline's massive system outage last year with 2,300 cancellations and worse than many snowstorms that have kept planes on the ground.

The cancellations continued Saturday as the airline continued to struggle with getting available crews and aircraft positioned to operate flights. Delta said Saturday it had cancelled another roughly 350 flights, with more than 130 cancellations expected Sunday as well.

Ultimately, hundreds of thousands of travelers across the country and the world had their travel plans disrupted by the delays, diversions and cancellations this week.

“I understand. It’s the weather,” said Farzad Saghian, who spent the night at the airport after his Thursday night flight was cancelled following hours of delays. “But they could have been a little more courteous. People were frustrated. There were babies in people’s hands.”

This week’s problem was exacerbated by a “perfect storm” of complicating factors: A busy Spring break week with many families and children traveling; bad weather disrupting flights in the Northeast and Chicago; and the Masters Tournament in Augusta that left few rental cars available as backup for travelers whose flights were cancelled.

Delta Chief Operating Officer Gil West said in a written statement that “we, as always, learn from these experiences.” The severe weather on Wednesday “was unprecedented for Atlanta” and difficult to forecast, he said.

"While we can't control the weather, we understand the resulting recovery has not been ideal and we apologize for that," West said.

Delta said Saturday its operation “continues to recover.”

But the airline has also warned that heavy spring break travel means there are few open seats for rebookings, leaving limited options for passengers of cancelled flights.

Unexpected long ground stop

Another key problem this week was that the thunderstorms hitting Atlanta lasted longer and were more severe than Delta was prepared for, with waves of storm cells continuing through Wednesday and into the night.

As a result the airline’s schedule of crews and airplanes was left in disarray and out of position.

An airline’s flight schedule is typically a logistical ballet of flights, aircraft, pilots, flight attendants and ground crews, each carefully scheduled to interact perfectly as they move on routes around the country and the world.

“You’re matching planes to crews to passengers to locations in an incredibly complex way,” said David Marcontell, general manager of aviation consulting firm Cavok.

But throw in the wrench of an unexpected five-hour ground stop and the ballet screeches to a halt. When the music starts again, the airline is left playing catch up — and unfortunately, Delta spent days stuck in catch-up mode, with some flight operations still out-of-sync and passengers left in the lurch.

Among the factors are safety regulations capping flight crew duty time and requirements for crew rest.

“These are important elements of our overall safety system that we ensure that a crew is alert and able to accomplish the flight in a safe manner,” Marcontell said. A pilot “has got to get that rest.”

That also means flight delays can roll over into subsequent flights and days. If a pilot is supposed to report back to work nine hours after finishing his flight duties in the evening, “if he lands five hours late, he’s by definition going to be leaving at least four hours late” for the next flight, Marcontell said. “You only have a finite number of spare pilots.”

With each cancelled or diverted flight, passengers got stuck and another flight’s airplane and crew were left in the wrong part of the country — leading to a domino effect that caused round after round of flight cancellations.

‘They kept on giving us hopes’

Typically before an expected snowstorm, Delta and other airlines can cancel flights a day or more in advance of the weather threat. That can generate frustration among some travelers, since their itineraries are disrupted before the first snowflake falls.

But for the airline, “proactive cancellations” help to keep passengers from getting stuck at airports, and also helps the airline orchestrate the placement of planes and crews to the best positions around the country to quickly restart operations once a storm has passed.

Delta says thunderstorms, however, are more difficult to predict in severity and length.

“At the end of the day, this type of weather is very severe weather you really don’t want to fly in,” said John Hansman, director of MIT’s International Center for Air Transportation. But in such a situation, “it typically takes an airline three days to a week for all the disruption to basically flow out of the system.”

Long lines at Delta counters filled the terminal Friday. For the second night in a row at Hartsfield-Jackson, weary travelers had spread across the floor of the terminal the night before to get sleep overnight after their flights were cancelled.

Delta’s systems were also overtaxed: Many travelers struggled to get information or rebookings from Delta’s app, its website or from its customer service phone line.

At the Atlanta airport, traveler Shadow McKnight said Friday “it looks like a disaster zone… Just how everybody is piled up on every available surface.”

McKnight, a furniture designer who was returning from a business trip to Louisville when her connecting flight was cancelled, spent the night in the terminal. “I kind of just walked around for a while, then found a table and laid my head down.”

Saghian said his flight back home to New York after a business trip was scheduled to depart at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, then was delayed until 11:30 p.m., 12:30 a.m., then 1:30 a.m.

“They kept on giving us hopes: ‘Don’t worry, it’s not going to cancel,’” Saghian said. “First they didn’t have a captain, then they didn’t have a crew” of flight attendants. “We waited until 3:30 [a.m.] until they just said yes, it’s cancelled.”

Saghian, who travels to Atlanta five times a year, had been in the airport for 14 hours by Friday morning and was set to wait another several hours for his rescheduled flight.

“It’s always busy, but I have never seen this airport like this,” Saghian said. “It was like a madhouse.”