Holiday travel: Hundreds of Delta flights canceled due to weather, pilot staffing issues

Some Delta fliers faced cancelations and flight delays over Christmas holidays because of bad weather and because the airline is working through a staffing issue. (Photo by Todd Bennett/Getty Images)
Some Delta fliers faced cancelations and flight delays over Christmas holidays because of bad weather and because the airline is working through a staffing issue. (Photo by Todd Bennett/Getty Images)

Credit: Todd Bennett

Credit: Todd Bennett

Delta Air Lines canceled hundreds of flights Christmas week due to a storm at its Minneapolis hub and because it didn’t have enough pilots for its reconfigured air fleet.

The Atlanta-based carrier and its regional operation, Delta Connection, canceled 325 flights in the two days before Christmas amid the storm that brought snow and high winds to Minnesota and the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

It canceled another 170 flights nationally from Christmas Eve to Christmas day due to pilot staffing issues.

“A number of factors have pressured our ability to timely staff several dozen scheduled flights, and we apologize to our customers for any inconvenience this may have caused,” Delta said in a written statement.

The pilot staffing problems stem from cutbacks Delta made earlier this year, when travel dropped precipitously with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The airline retired all Boeing 777s, MD-88s and MD-90s from its fleet. It has more than enough pilots to operate, but they work in a seniority-based system. The retirement of the international 777 flown by some of the most senior pilots prompted the need to retrain them to fly other planes — which in turn displaced other pilots and started a cascade of pilot retraining.

“We don’t have pilots in the right seats in the right airplanes at the right time,” said Chris Riggins, a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association union at Delta.

Meanwhile, the Delta pilot training center’s set number of flight simulators limited its capacity. The pandemic exacerbated the problem.

Delta pilots are being asked to get tested for COVID-19 once a week. “We’re seeing the numbers [of cases] increase, along with everyone else,” Riggins said.

Delta typically depends on offering overtime pay to increase pilot staffing when needed, but it can be more difficult to get enough last-minute volunteers on holidays.

Delta also had to cancel over 600 flights over Thanksgiving amid crew staffing issues, and it had hoped to avoid similar problems over Christmas.

Riggins said traffic is expected to be busy Jan. 5 with return trips from the holidays, but he didn’t think there would be the same pilot staffing problems.

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