Memorial Day weekend is go-time at Delta’s Atlanta hub

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

The start of summer travel season to put Atlanta-based airline’s preparations to the test

Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines has spent months preparing for the busy summer travel season. The test of that preparation has now arrived with the start of the hectic Memorial Day weekend.

The Transportation Security Administration on Friday had its busiest-ever morning rush at Hartsfield-Jackson, with 31,638 passengers passing through the airport’s security checkpoints from 3 a.m. to 8 a.m., according to the agency. That surpassed the 31,086 passengers that went through ATL security checkpoints on Feb. 4, 2019, the day after the Super Bowl in Atlanta.

Delta says it will handle more than 550,000 customers at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport during the five-day Memorial Day travel period, which started Thursday and lasts through Monday. More than 100,000 Delta passengers will go through the Atlanta airport on the busiest days.

Delta’s daily Atlanta departure schedule will reach up to 820 and eventually ramp up to about 850 flights per day in Atlanta in July.

Last summer, the rebound in air travel was marred by staff shortages and other issues coming out of the pandemic. Airlines have been forced to rapidly staff up and have adjusted their flight schedules to get ahead of potential problems.

In years past, Delta had operated as many as 1,000 departures a day from Atlanta, its largest hub.

But since then, the airline has reduced the number of flights and shifted to larger planes after retirements of older narrow-body and regional jets. Delta retired its fleet of 50-seat Delta Connection jets at the end of April.

The industry-wide shift to larger jets also means that many smaller communities that relied on small regional jets in the past have seen reductions in airline service.

But Joe Miller, Delta’s ATL vice president, noted that Delta’s flight schedule is about 17% bigger than last year, in its ongoing recovery from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. That includes a 20% increase in international flights.

As a result, Delta expects to see passenger volumes for the summer largely matching 2019 levels, Miller said.

To handle the volume, Delta has hired more than 2,100 employees at Hartsfield-Jackson over the last year.

It also enlists employees at its Atlanta headquarters to work inside the airport during busy periods as part of its Peach Corps, helping customers navigate the terminal and assisting with tasks like tagging checked bags.

And, Delta assigns some of its employees at the airport to help TSA at the Main checkpoint and South checkpoint, where Delta workers offer instructions on how to properly pack bins for screening.

Delta slashed tens of thousands of employees from its workforce during the pandemic and had to quickly staff up again for the recovery in travel. The growing pains led to mass cancellations and flight disruptions last year.

But now, thousands of employees have a year or more of experience under their belt, Miller said.

“Now we have folks who have a lot of tenure and they’re ready for whatever weather may come,” he said. Storms are one of the drivers of flight disruptions and can be tricky to manage through.

This Memorial Day weekend, the weather forecast looks favorable, Miller said — portending the possibility of minimal disruptions.

During some of the busiest times of the peak early morning travel period Friday at Hartsfield-Jackson, wait times reached as long a half hour or more.

“We encourage customers to come early,” Miller said. Monday and Tuesday will also be particularly busy at the airport, as travelers return from Memorial Day trips.