Delta pilots picketed at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and other major airports around the country on Thursday as they criticized the airline for mass cancellations and called for a new labor contract.
The picketing involved hundreds of off-duty Delta pilots at the airline’s major hubs including Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles International, Minneapolis-St. Paul, New York John F. Kennedy, Seattle-Tacoma and Salt Lake City, according to the union. More than 400 pilots picketed in shifts on the curbside outside the terminals at the Atlanta airport, home to the largest Delta pilot base.
The Air Line Pilots Association at Delta said it was picketing to protest “protracted contract negotiations,” while working under a labor contract that dates back to 2016, adding that they haven’t had a pay raise in three-and-a-half years.
Delta in a statement said the “informational exercise” by off-duty pilots would not affect its operations for customers. The company said its goal is to continue providing pilots an “industry-leading overall contract” while also being able to support its operation, maintain a strong balance sheet and invest in the business.
The union, which represents Delta’s 13,900 pilots, said it is seeking improvements in pay, retirement benefits and job protections, as well as changes to schedules.
Jason Ambrosi, head of the pilots union at Delta, said pilots deserve better pay, as they have been working record amounts of overtime and calling in fatigued far more often.
“Delta is scheduling more flying than they can handle,” Ambrosi said.
Delta CEO Ed Bastian, in an e-mail to frequent fliers on Thursday, apologized to customers who have had their flights disrupted.
“If you’ve encountered delays and cancellations recently, I apologize,” Bastian wrote. He added that “this level of disruption and uncertainty is unacceptable.”
Bastian noted the airline is hiring more employees, boarding flights earlier to try to depart on time, and deploying hundreds of employees from its Atlanta headquarters into airports to help customers.
“The environment we’re navigating today is unlike anything we’ve ever faced,” Bastian wrote. “We won’t stop until we’ve made things right.”
The pilots union and management started contract talks in 2019 and filed for mediation in 2020. Negotiations paused during the pandemic and restarted in January 2022.
The union said it has opened a “strike center” inside its Atlanta office to “begin preparing the Delta pilots for scenarios as permitted under the Railway Labor Act,” which governs airline labor contract negotiations.
The pilots have not taken a strike vote, Ambrosi said. The Railway Labor Act prescribes a number of hurdles that must be cleared before airline workers can strike.
Delta said management and the union “continue to make progress in the negotiations” and have come to terms on the majority of the contract sections.
“We are confident that the parties will reach a consensual deal that is fair and equitable, as we always have in past negotiations,” according to a statement from Delta.
On Thursday, some travelers expressed support for the pilots, and also said they were concerned about flight cancellations.
Will Hembree was at Hartsfield-Jackson on Thursday morning to fly to Miami and said thinks the issues the pilots are raising about wages are “understandable.” He said his airline ticket cost significantly more than fares two years ago, “so somebody is making money somewhere.”
Greg Graham, who flew into Atlanta for a wedding on Thursday morning from Providence, R.I., said he understands where the pilots are coming from. The airline “shouldn’t be overscheduling,” he said.
“Pilots are tired,” said Delta pilot Maggie Eickhoff. “Delta has overscheduled the airline. ... We just don’t have the pilots available.”
Patrick Burns, Delta’s vice president of flight operations and chief pilot, said flight cancellations and delays “are happening for a lot of reasons,” including air traffic control delays. He also said with the airline hiring thousands of new employees across departments, it is taking extra time for workers to gain the experience needed for their jobs and requiring extra staff to train them.
Some flight attendants joined in the pilots’ picketing. The Association of Flight Attendants union is seeking to organize Delta flight attendants and the union’s president, Sara Nelson, flew into Atlanta to voice support for the pilots.
She said flight attendant staffing is also still “way below” 2019 levels, and flight attendants have to work more often. “It is exhausting flight attendants,” she said.
Atlanta City Councilman Antonio Lewis also appeared at Hartsfield-Jackson, which is in his district, saying he “stands in support of labor.”
While some city officials have been hesitant to voice support for unions that are critical of Delta, which is the dominant carrier at Hartsfield-Jackson and holds its largest airline lease, Lewis — who took office in January — said “You’ve got a new council.”
“This is a fight that’s worth it,” Lewis said. “This should have nothing to do with the city’s strong relationship with Delta.”