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Fliers' Patience Thins as Delta's Recovery Moves Into Fifth Day

Bloomberg logoBloomberg 4/9/2017 Michael Sasso
BC-DELTA-DELAYS:  © Michael Sasso  

(Bloomberg) -- Brittany Wengel was supposed to fly Delta to Florida on Thursday for a long weekend away from a gray New York City. As of Sunday, she was still grounded. 

Delta, which had canceled her original flight to Fort Lauderdale, rebooked her on another direct one for Sunday morning before canceling that one as well and offering her a multiple layover option instead.

“They rebooked me on something today that has three legs,” the 24-year-old marketing professional said on Sunday. “It would take 12 hours of flying just to get to Florida from New York.” With her return flight scheduled only two days later, she decided to forgo the less-than-ideal rebooking and shelve her spring weekend getaway plans altogether.

Days after a massive storm struck Atlanta, Delta Air Lines Inc. is still recovering from what airline insiders term an “irregular operation.” The nation’s second-largest carrier has canceled about 3,500 flights since Wednesday, more than the 2,300 canceled during the powerful computer failure in August that prompted Chief Executive Officer Ed Bastian to apologize to passengers.

Perfect Storm

Fueling last week’s meltdown were Delta’s reliance on its Atlanta mega-hub and rules concerning how long flight crews can operate. While much was beyond Delta’s control -- including the surprisingly wicked storm that grounded all Atlanta flights for nearly five hours -- passengers, aviation experts and the airline’s own flight crews wonder if the carrier was slow to anticipate the storm’s severity and react quickly enough when communications started to break down.

“I do not want to underestimate the chaos that a five-hour ground stop would cause,” said Bob Edwards, a former chief information officer at United Continental Holdings Inc. who recovered from several storms and computer outages during his tenure there. “Canceling quickly and getting ahead of it and staying ahead of it with cancellations is the key.”

A Delta spokesman wouldn’t comment on the issue Sunday.

Delta had canceled 150 flights by mid-afternoon Sunday, an improvement over the prior two days when it canceled more than 1,200 combined, according to flight tracking site FlightAware.com. The carrier said its operations were “stabilizing” Sunday, but that rules mandating pilot and flight attendant rest were creating problems in finding people to fly and staff planes.

“We know this is extremely frustrating for our customers and we apologize for that,” the airline said in a statement Sunday. “Delta teams continue to work around the clock to fully reset our operation and keep customers informed.”

Passenger Distress

Tales of passengers missing weddings and even pilots stuck in remote airports waiting for return trips to Atlanta were all over social media and present a challenge to an airline that prides itself on the best on-time arrival rate among its peers, according to Department of Transportation data. This is the third major cancellation event since summer, though the other two were caused by computer outages.

Things were so backed up at Delta’s operations center that on Saturday the carrier urged pilots not to call in, and instead use an automated system called Roll Call for communicating with crew schedulers, an internal communication to pilots showed.

Edwards, who left United in 2014, said the majority of Delta’s problems were almost certainly beyond the airline’s control. The Federal Aviation Administration called a ground stop for flights at Atlanta for at least 4 1/2 hours Wednesday, according to tweets from the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. A halt of an hour or two is more common, Edwards said. An outage of nearly five hours makes things “exponentially worse,” he said.

That is long enough that many pilots and flight attendants no doubt ran up against federal regulations on how long they can work before resting. In recent years, things have become so strict that a pilot can be sitting in the cockpit awaiting takeoff and determine that he can’t reach his destination before timing out, Edwards said. He would have to disembark and the airline would have to find another pilot, he said.

“There was probably a large number of pilots and crews that timed out, and they timed out in places where there probably were not replacements,” Edwards said.

The trick is to get ahead of storms by proactively canceling flights, which prevents airlines from running afoul of flight crew rest rules and helps them reset their networks, he said. The question is whether Delta canceled enough flights at the outset to get ahead of things, he said. That’s especially vital in a hub as big as Atlanta, Edwards said. Sixty percent of Delta’s fleet goes through Atlanta on any given day, the carrier said last week.

Unprecedented’ Weather

Delta Chief Operating Officer Gil West on Thursday noted Delta’s surprise at the storm’s severity.

“Wednesday’s severe weather was unprecedented for Atlanta and the specific track and intensity of weather like this is often difficult to forecast,” he said in a statement.

Another issue: the complex way that crews are paired up nowadays, said Michael Baiada, an aviation consultant and former pilot for United. Pilots, flight attendants and aircraft often come together for only a single flight -- say from Atlanta to New York -- before the pilot may head off on a flight to Chicago, the flight attendants go to Washington and the aircraft is sent to Dallas.

That creates huge complexities, with pilots and flight attendants reaching their maximum hours at different times, Baiada said. He prefers the old system of pairing them all up into a team, he said.

“It becomes much more complex because you’ve made all these pieces all over the map,” Baiada said.

Wengel, the passenger from New York who missed her Florida vacation, said she’s been loyal to Delta because of its reliability in the past. She says she’s rethinking things now based on her experiences this week.

“This will probably impact my view of Delta, but we’ll see what their response is as a result of this,” she said. “So far this has been handled so irresponsibly.”

--With assistance from Dani Burger

To contact the reporter on this story: Michael Sasso in Atlanta at msasso9@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Brendan Case at bcase4@bloomberg.net, Anne Riley Moffat, Kevin Miller

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.

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