While flying to Sydney, I got caught in the great Delta Meltdown of April 2017. While not as much of a kerfuffle as the United beating incident, it affected far more travellers. While my tale is seemingly a boring anecdote of “how was your trip?” that people ask as a way of small-talk, without really wanting to know the answer, it provides a window into the operation of a large transportation organization.
Jon Ostrower writes the official history of this breakdown of Atlanta-based Delta for Atlanta-based CNN.
After years of profitability and reliable service, Delta Air Lines struggled mightily last week with two basic functions of its business — flying airplanes and accommodating passengers.
Severe weather that pounded Atlanta in the middle of spring break caused a five-day meltdown across Delta’s flight network, leaving passengers fuming and its own crews waiting for instructions.
The weather is, of course, out of Delta’s control. But the chaos was amplified by the phenomenal complexity of running a modern-day mega-airline, according to interviews with Delta pilots, flight attendants and other staffers.
The episode was out of character for America’s second-biggest carrier. Its chief operating officer, Gil West, apologized and said the recovery from the storm had “not been ideal.”
Delta canceled more than 3,500 flights from Wednesday through Sunday. By Monday, the airline was getting back to normal, a spokesman said, but the effects of the storms still lingered.
I suspect the far-too sympathetic reporters underestimate the incompetence and overestimate the “bad luck” nature of this. Better contingency planning is an obvious need. In my mind, from watching the behaviour of actual crew members and ground staff at the airport, I imagine the crew-management computers were out (because of lack of backup systems, a lack of redundant control centers, and a hard crash with a power outage), and schedulers were using note cards on a large board like in the old days. The pilot’s forum hints at this. However since the schedulers weren’t old-timers, they weren’t very good at it. I also suspect Delta has a very vulnerable network, and would be better off with fewer inter-dependencies between routes and crews. At the other extreme is a carrier that runs a lot of point-to-point flights, any of which can be disabled without taking out the whole network.
In my case, the flight from MSP to LAX (neither of which were affected by weather) was delayed 5 times (and the gate moved a couple of times) (from 5:43 in the evening to 9:40 pm) before being cancelled. If they had cancelled and rebooked immediately, there would be far fewer problems. The gate agent in fact said at first that the delays were due to mechanical issues with a plane, rather than the “weather”, but then they later started blaming the “weather”, which I believe has financial consequences about compensating passengers. I believe they also deplaned a bunch of passengers from one flight hoping to reuse it for us. In any case, the problem was not the presence of airplanes, it was the presence of crews. There were an insufficient number of either flight attendants or pilots at the right gate simultaneously (take your pick), and then when they changed the size of the aircraft, they discovered they needed another flight attendant (because ‘rules,’ even though the number of passengers is exactly the same).
To mollify annoyed if not irate customers, Delta gave out pizzas, which is great, unless you are dairy intolerant.
Fortunately I was put on the last flight out of MSP, but too late to make that night’s connection from LAX to SYD. Apparently they officially automatically rebooked me through Houston, but they never bothered to tell me that, so they were very confused when I called them from LA. Their computer databases don’t sync very well, since they did put me on the LA flight, and that should have been known to their system.
In any case, after arriving at LAX, I got a hotel near the airport. I waited in the taxi line, and when my turn came up, the taxi driver advised me to wait in a different line for the free hotel shuttle, which came right along. He didn’t want such a short distance fare.
I called Delta from the hotel to rebook. I was on hold for 3 hours. I went to sleep in this time and just put the phone on speaker, hoping that when a human came on line I would wake up. This actually worked. Even more amazingly, my cell phone carrier (T-Mobile) held a connection for 3 hours, which never happens. They put me on the flight the next night and all was well. I went to Manhattan Beach (next post) and had no subsequent issues getting to Australia.
The three hour wait is generally unacceptable. One wonders why there is not a 3rd party business providing surplus call center people trained in the ways of multiple organisations that can work as temporary staff for different companies. I understand JetBlue uses at-home workers for call-center staff.
Later, I complained to Delta and they said they would reimburse me for the hotel (a check is in the mail). I didn’t ask for the meals since I figured I had to eat anyway (one was built into the hotel, one was with friends). They also gave me, and I guess everyone, 20000 frequent flyer miles, which is not enough for a domestic ticket, but better than 0. I assume the cost of domestic trips in terms of miles will soon quietly get more expensive. It almost says “I’m sorry”.