OPINION: Flying this summer? Roll the dice and wait a while

JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

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JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

The delay had dragged on for hours at Hartsfield-Jackson and the crowd stranded at the gate was tired and irritated. That’s when it got weird: Their Delta pilot got on the customer service microphone and urged passengers to let his airline have it.

“He said he’s been a pilot for (28) years and has never seen anything like this,” said Phil Kloer, who was trying to fly to Washington D.C. with his wife, Heather. “He said Delta will send you a survey and to go ahead and give them an earful, give them bad reviews.”

Such is the state of flying today: Everyone’s a critic, even those in the cockpit.

The Kloers — Phil used to work at this newspaper — experienced a series of cascading events that started after their 2:45 p.m. flight taxied away from the gate and then sat, and sat, for perhaps 90 minutes. The pilot said there were weather issues in D.C. Later, he mentioned a mechanical problem. Soon, it was back to the gate.

A new captain was sent to fly the plane and then they endured the old creeping delay ― a possible 5 p.m. takeoff became perhaps 7:30 or maybe 9 or . . .

Finally, Delta pulled the plug. “We left Hartsfield at 11:30 in an Uber with no luggage,” Kloer said. “I understand low staffing and that (shinola) happens, but it was the lack of transparency” that he found especially irritating.

ExploreDelta warns of challenges over July 4 weekend, allows rebookings

Finding another Delta flight in the near future was impossible, as flights were now all packed. So, they flew American Airlines two days later, after considering an 11-hour drive.

Nope, the long drive would be for Chris Harvey, who discovered upon waking up Monday that his 11 a.m. flight to Kansas City was canceled. After 90 minutes on the phone, Delta said they could get Harvey to his destination by 3 p.m. Tuesday.

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John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

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John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Hmmm, no good. Harvey, a lifelong lawman who was Georgia’s elections director in 2020, was set to wrap up a speech to the National Sheriff’s Association at precisely that time.

Instead, he hopped in his car and, 800 interstate miles later, pulled up to his hotel. Thank God for audio books.

These are just two tales like many of us have encountered while flying this summer. My wife and I recently waited 90 minutes for our bags. I was told it was 90 degrees and that some baggage handlers often stay home when it gets real hot, or cold, or wet. It’s a hard enough job when temperate.

I don’t mean to pick on Delta, all airlines are canceling and delaying flights as the summer vacation season — hello 4th of July! — is upon us and a pent-up public demand has gobbled up the limited and pricey seats.

I told a recently retired Delta pilot about his colleague urging the crowd to light up his airline. “That’s pretty bad,” he said, although he understands the frustration. “The airlines got caught with their pants down.”

But he said Delta had to shed paid bodies because the airline was in “survival mode.”

More than 1,800 Delta pilots took an early retirement in 2020 as COVID emptied airplanes and the reeling airlines fought to survive, albeit with tens of billions of dollars of federal bailout money. And hundreds more pilots leave each year because of mandatory retirement. After 2020, Delta had 12,940 pilots. It now has 13,900 and is trying to hire and train more, a process much more onerous than hiring new truck drivers or chefs.

Bill McGee, aviation advisor at the American Economic Liberties Project, said, “I’ve never seen so many flight cancelations and certainly not as many last-minute cancelations. That is what is unforgivable. People are at the airport, they’re ready to go on vacation and their phone beeps. Flight’s canceled. They need to get ahead of it.”

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A limbo for passengers' luggage at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. Photo by Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

A limbo for passengers' luggage at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. Photo by Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

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A limbo for passengers' luggage at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. Photo by Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

Airlines are trying to earn back money lost in 2020 and 2021 and are packing planes. But, McGee said, there is no margin for error: If a storm pops up, if there’s a mechanical problem, if a crew gets delayed, if a pilot gets COVID, then there are throngs of frustrated folks crowding gates and peppering overworked customer service aides.

On Monday, 7,448 flights were delayed within, into, or out of the United States, according to FlightAware.com, and 966 cancelled. Delta had 28% of its flights delayed and 7% canceled, about in line with American and United airlines.

Airlines need to be realistic, McGee said, and cancel more flights further in advance to give the public time to work out a Plan B and give their staffs breathing room.

The pilot I spoke to said it’s not cost efficient to pay pilots to hang around on reserve just in case there’s a problem. “If the plane isn’t in the air, it’s not making money,” he said. That’s why they fill their schedules “and then hang onto them as best they can.”

A Delta spokesman told me the airline is allowing passengers “added flexibility to fly over the holiday weekend,” offering waivers to change to less busy days without cost.

Or you can roll the dice on whether you’ll be flying a day or two later, or taking a long, unexpected drive.