Delta pilots voice frustration over schedules, flight cancellations

Letter follows travel turmoil over Memorial Day weekend and flight cuts announced this summer.
Delta Air Lines pilots are seen picketing at the south terminal of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport Thursday, March 10, 2022. The pilots are members of the Air Line Pilots Association at Delta and protesting fatiguing schedules. (Daniel Varnado/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Delta Air Lines pilots are seen picketing at the south terminal of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport Thursday, March 10, 2022. The pilots are members of the Air Line Pilots Association at Delta and protesting fatiguing schedules. (Daniel Varnado/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Delta Air Lines pilots voiced frustration with flight cancellations in an open letter to customers, and raised concerns that Delta is scheduling more flights than it has the staff to operate.

The pressures of short-staffing, weather disruptions and increases in COVID-19 cases among employees drove Delta to cancel hundreds of flights over the Memorial Day holiday period and trim its flight schedules through the summer.

Atlanta-based Delta had the most flight cancellations of any U.S. airline over that holiday weekend. While demand has rebounded, Delta has struggled to bring enough pilots back to duty quickly enough.

Delta has continued to cancel hundreds of flights in recent days.

“We empathize and share in your frustration over the delays, cancellations, and disrupted travel plans you’ve experienced,” the Air Line Pilots Association union at Delta told customers in the rare direct message to travelers. “We agree — it is unacceptable.”

The union held an informational picket at Delta’s annual shareholders meeting on Thursday morning in New York, tying allegedly fatiguing schedules with poor reliability.

Also this week, the Air Line Pilots Association at Delta sent a letter to the company’s board of directors saying the union’s leadership had “lost confidence” in Delta’s management of pilots and flight training, adding that “Delta’s operational reliability and outstanding reputation is suffering.” The union said the board should “demand a higher level of accountability from our management teams.”

Delta management called the move a “procedural tactic” during labor negotiations.

The union also picketed at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in March over the amount of overtime they’ve been working amid tight staffing and high demand.

The pilots are not calling into question flight safety in their message to customers. And Delta said its pilot schedules are in compliance with federal safety requirements.

Pressure from Washington

U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Edward Markey, D-Mass., sent a letter to industry group Airlines for America earlier this month raising concerns about the thousands of flight cancellations over the Memorial Day weekend, asking for answers and urging airlines to compensate customers who were affected.

Airlines for America, which has Delta CEO Ed Bastian on its board of directors, responded by pointing to air traffic control disruptions due to thunderstorms and Federal Aviation Administration staffing challenges.

Airlines “are taking great care to reduce their summer flight schedules while also accelerating efforts to hire and train new employees to meet the strong resurgence in travel demand,” the industry group wrote in a letter in response. “The FAA must also work to ensure that the air traffic control system is capable of meeting demand.”

Following the letter, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg scheduled a virtual meeting with airline CEOs Thursday on the recent flight disruptions and the busy travel season, according to a Reuters report.

Mass flight cancellations have upset plans for millions of travelers, who are taking to the skies again in a recovery of travel from the effects of the pandemic.

In what the Delta pilots’ union called its first-ever open letter to customers, the union wrote: “We have been working on our days off, flying a record amount of overtime to help you get to your destination.” The union said if this rate of flying continues, by fall its pilots will have flown more overtime in 2022 than 2018 and 2019 combined.

The letters said pilots continue to prioritize safety and added that the union has been “cautioning Delta for months that it must exercise restraint when adding back flights.”

Delta in written comments Thursday said all of its employees, including pilots, “are working hard to restore our airline and deliver for our customers as we emerge from the pandemic.”

Delta management called the union picketing at its shareholder meeting an “informational exercise by some of our off-duty pilots” and said it will not disrupt operations for customers.

“We continuously evaluate our staffing models and plan ahead so that we can recover quickly when unforeseen circumstances arise,” Delta said in a written statement. “Pilot schedules remain in line with all requirements set by the FAA as well as those outlined in our pilot contract.”

Staffing up

Delta’s approach to the recovery may have contributed to the challenges it faces today. In mid-2021, Delta CEO Ed Bastian voiced plans to keep costs low as travel recovers.

Bastian told investors at a conference a year ago that as traffic recovers to 2019 levels, “We don’t need to bring back as many of the people” — which will allow the company to keep its costs lower.

A Delta jet lands at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.  JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: Kelly Yamanouchi

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Credit: Kelly Yamanouchi

Other causes of the strains in airline pilot staffing are complex. Even though Delta is hiring about 200 pilots a month, it can take months of training before a pilot can begin flying passengers for the airline.

What’s more, airline pilots’ job assignments are highly seniority-based. When many new pilots join or older pilots retire, it can create a domino effect of many other pilots shifting to different aircraft — prompting even more pilots to be unavailable to fly while they go through training. Delta has a mixed fleet, and getting retrained from a Boeing to an Airbus aircraft or vice-versa can take even longer.

Such shifts happened in huge waves when airlines cut thousands from their payroll during the pandemic-driven drop in air travel through early retirement offers, and when they rushed to ramp up again and began hiring new pilots.

Delta has for years boasted to investors about good relations with its mostly non-union workforce and its pilots union, with representatives from the Air Line Pilots Association at Delta attending investor events in the past.

As a result, the picketing event at a shareholder meeting highlights a more tense time, as the company is in contract negotiations with its pilots for a new labor contract, while also facing a major unionization campaign among its flight attendants. Delta said it has industry-leading flight attendant pay and benefits, and noted its flight attendants have voted against unionization in the past.