While a white Christmas is a dream for many, it can be a nightmare for airlines.
Delta Air Lines was caught in the crosshairs of a winter storm that fell on the pandemic’s busiest travel week, causing 325 flight cancellations in the days leading up to Christmas and 130 on the holiday itself.
Wind gusts of up to 40 miles per hour and snowfall affected Delta’s hub in Minneapolis starting on the Wednesday before Christmas, as the airline reported, that continued into the following day. The initial storm prompted Delta to cancel 250 flights and rebook passengers but that was just the beginning.
What began as a weather issue quickly turned into a staffing issue as the airline found itself with not enough pilots. Delta hasn’t furloughed pilots but has reduced its workforce through voluntary separation programs during the pandemic that saw over 2,000 pilots depart with the airline, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in mid-July.
Chris Riggins, a Delta pilot and Air Line Pilots Association communications chairman for the Delta Air Lines Executive Council, told the Washington Post that the issues were the result of shrinking pains.
“Due to the downsizing of the airline and trying to manage the size of the workforce … there’s been some training issues that’s been created from moving pilots from airplane to airplane and getting them retrained,” Riggins told the Post.
Four aircraft types were retired by Delta during the pandemic including the Boeing 777, McDonnell Douglas MD-88, McDonnell Douglas MD-90, and Boeing 737-700, while a new plane, the Airbus A220-300, was onboarded. The country’s second-largest airline before the pandemic, Delta had been known for its aging fleet and the pandemic was allowing the airline to finally address the issue.
The move was intended to give Delta a streamlined fleet of modern aircraft like the Airbus A350-900 XWB and A330neo, which would maximize the efficiency of a pilot pool and reduce training costs. The airline plans to retire more in the next half-decade including the Boeing 717 and 767-300ER.
Delta told Business Insider that 170 flights were canceled due to crew issues on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, with 40 reported on the former and 130 on the latter.
The low travel numbers that have become commonplace during the pandemic didn’t give Delta a reprieve either. The Transportation Security Administration reported over a million passengers passed through their checkpoints on six days between December 18 and December 27 with Sunday seeing 1.3 million, the most since the pandemic began, as Business Insider’s Allana Akhtar reported.
Over two million flyers passed through TSA checkpoints in the two-day period when Delta canceled 325 flights. More travelers took to the skies on Christmas than they did on Thanksgiving, the data shows, despite the country being knee-deep in a COVID-19 surge and warnings from public health officials not to travel.
Any increase in flyers should’ve proved beneficial to cash-strapped airlines but it only compounded the weather issues. Delta is among the last airlines to block middle seats on its airplanes, limiting rebooking options for stranded travelers as crowding planes to accommodate passengers would violate its new “Delta CareStandard” tenets, which Business Insider experienced firsthand on a recent visit to Delta’s operation in New York.
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