Delta pilots plan to picket at airport over staffing issues

The pilots union at Delta Air Lines says the carrier doesn’t have enough buffer in its staffing to manage well through storms or other disruptions, causing pilots to work fatiguing schedules and more overtime.

The airline is counting on pilots to work extra flights on their days off in order to maintain its flight schedules, especially when storms or other disruptions require rescheduling.

Members of the Air Line Pilots Association plan to picket at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport outside the Delta check-in lobby on Thursday to raise public awareness of the staffing issue.

“We’re just concerned that, if the company continues this way, the pilots are just not going to continue with the things the way they are,” said Jason Ambrosi, head of the Air Line Pilots Association at Delta. “At some point, (pilots) may not pick up that overtime anymore and extra flying.”

The union says if the airline had a surplus of pilots, it could avoid excessive flight cancellations when it runs into operational snafus or weather disruptions.

During the busy holiday travel period last December and stretching into early January, a combination of factors snowballed to cause thousands of flight cancellations for Delta and other carriers. Among those factors were short-staffing, winter storms and a surge in COVID-19 cases that meant more pilots were out sick.

The union wants Delta to refrain from adding flights back to its schedule as rapidly as it has. Ambrosi said he thinks Delta should “add flying back at a more reasonable level, to give our people a break.” The union asked the company to change its pilot scheduling last fall, but said it has not seen the improvements it wanted.

Atlanta-based Delta called the picketing an “informational exercise by some of our off-duty pilots” and said it will not disrupt operations. The pilots union also plans to picket at Los Angeles International Airport on March 25.

The pilots union is in contract negotiations with Delta management. The mediated talks started up again in January following a long pause because of the pandemic.

Delta has said it expects that, this year, its capacity will recover to 90% of its pre-pandemic levels, if demand holds.

Delta pilots worked a record amount of overtime in January, according to the union.

“Delta, as a company, handled the pandemic well. However, in the recovery, Delta is adding flying back at a rate that essentially exceeds the number of people we have to handle that flying,” Ambrosi said.

Delta is in compliance with Federal Aviation Administration regulations for crew scheduling. Still, Ambrosi said, pilots are contending with “a general sense of fatigue and tiredness.” He said there has been an increase in pilots reporting they are too fatigued to fly.

Delta said in a written statement that all of its pilot schedules “meet or exceed safety requirements set by FAA as well as those outlined in our pilot contract.” The airline said it is “balancing ways to improve schedules for our pilots” as it recovers from the pandemic slowdown.

Delta has about 13,420 pilots now, which is fewer than it had before the pandemic, the union said. At one point the airline had nearly 14,700 pilots. “The staffing buffer is a lot lower than it was prior,” Ambrosi said. The airline is now hiring about 200 pilots a month as it recovers.

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