Delta warns of challenges over 4th of July weekend, allows rebookings

Passengers make their way through Concourse A at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport Wednesday, June 22, 2022. Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Passengers make their way through Concourse A at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport Wednesday, June 22, 2022. Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Atlanta-based carrier is bracing for disruption amid high demand and staffing woes.

Delta Air Lines warned that it expects “operational challenges” over the busy Fourth of July weekend, and is taking the unusual step of allowing customers to change their travel dates to avoid the havoc.

It’s the latest development in a tumultuous summer travel season punctuated by weekends with hundreds of flight cancellations that disrupt trips, just as millions of travelers take to the skies in a return to flying.

Staffing problems among pilot ranks and other airline workers along with strains on short-handed air traffic control towers, airports and security checkpoints are combining to exacerbate the effects of weather disruptions. It’s resulting in an upheaval of air travel that could continue through the busy summer season. And there’s no simple fix on the horizon.

Atlanta-based Delta issued a travel waiver for the July 1-4 period on any flights across its entire system, so customers can easily shift their trips to before or after that period and avoid what the carrier calls “potentially challenging weekend travel days.”

The airline says flight dates can be changed via its website or app to any time by July 8 without a fare difference or change fee, as long as the origin and destination remain the same.

The advisory ahead of a major summer travel holiday follows a Memorial Day weekend debacle that angered some passengers and led to Delta’s pilots to publish a rare letter empathizing with frustrated customers.

Delta pilots are planning to picket at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and other major airports around the country on Thursday, as they call out the carrier for flight cancellations and push for a new labor contract.

The pilots union, which started contract talks years ago and is seeking more pay, retirement benefits and job protections, said it has opened a “strike center” in its Atlanta office to start preparing for “scenarios as permitted under the Railway Labor Act.” The act, which governs pilot contract negotiations, lays out a number of hurdles that must be cleared before airline workers can go on strike.

ExploreDelta pilots union to picket in Atlanta and around the country

Delta said it expects to carry passenger volumes “not seen since before the pandemic” over the Independence Day travel period, and that the waiver is intended to give flexibility to avoid “busy travel times, weather forecasts and other variables.”

Airlines and airports are bracing for a major test over the upcoming weekend. Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport expects to handle 1.7 million passengers from June 30 through July 5.

Going into the holiday weekend, Jason Ambrosi, head of the Air Line Pilots Association union at Delta, said in a written statement: “The perfect storm is occurring. Demand is back, and pilots are flying record amounts of overtime but we are still seeing management cancelling, leaving our customers stranded and their holiday plans ruined.”

The potential for the air travel system to unravel is capturing the attention of officials at some of the highest levels of government.

“There are going to be challenges” over Independence Day weekend, said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on NBC Nightly News this week, adding that he is watching it closely.

“A lot of people, including me, are expecting to get to loved ones over this holiday weekend and we need a system that’s resilient enough to get them there,” Buttigieg said.

U.S. Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., sent letters to Delta CEO Ed Bastian and leaders of nine other major airlines this week citing cancellations and delays over the Memorial Day and Juneteenth weekends urging them to “address flight schedule issues now.”

“Flight cancellations and significant delays have real-world consequences for the travelers who may miss vacations, sacrifice time with loved ones, or incur significant financial costs,” the senators wrote to the airline CEOs.

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April 27, 2021 Hartsfield-Jackson Airport: A Delta Air Lines takes off from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

April 27, 2021 Hartsfield-Jackson Airport: A Delta Air Lines takes off from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
April 27, 2021 Hartsfield-Jackson Airport: A Delta Air Lines takes off from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Delta has been struggling for months through pilot staffing issues amid labor shortages, including at contractors it relies on for services, and had hundreds of flight cancellations over the Memorial Day travel period and other weekends this summer.

“This phase of our recovery has been the most difficult. We’ve never had to bring the airline back at this speed before,” said John Laughter, Delta’s chief of operations, in a written statement.

The airline cut about 100 flights a day from its schedule from July through early August in an attempt to make its flight schedule more manageable with the number of workers it has available.

Still, that apparently hasn’t been sufficient to avoid a “ripple effect” of flight cancellations that multiply after an initial disruption.