Delta Learns the Downside of Running a Good Operation


Delta has done a masterful job over the years of positioning itself as a cut above the rest, especially with its operational performance. But now, the operation is suffering, and the headlines are flowing. Here are a few…

  • Delta cancels more than 700 flights Memorial Day weekend, kicking off uncertain summer travel
  • Delta is cutting 100 daily flights this summer. Here’s what to know if yours is one of them.
  • Delta’s canceled flights lead to weekend travel woes

The thing is, while Delta’s performance absolutely has not been good… it’s not really much different than the rest of the airlines. The problem for Delta is that it has been so good, the expectations are much higher. And now it’s paying the price for that.

Just how bad has it been? Let’s start broadly with a look at the 10 largest US airlines on the whole, including regional carriers.

Completion and Arrivals within 14 Minutes of Schedule – May Comparison

Data via masFlight, includes AA/DL/UA/WN/HA/B6/AS/NK/G4/F9 and regionals

The completion factor is actually nearly identical this May compared to 2019, actually just a tick lower. But arrivals within 14 minutes of schedule (A14), well, yes, those are worse than any of the past years here. For May through the 30th, the arrivals within 14 minutes number was 78 percent.

This is, of course, a very broad brush that doesn’t look by day nor does it look by airline. To me, the most interesting comparison is just looking at the big three carriers: American, Delta, and United. Sure, we know Alaska has had a rough go of it, and JetBlue’s operation has been awful. But those are different kinds of airlines. The most pure look is comparing the three, so, let’s do that, starting with on-time arrivals.

Arrivals Within 14 Minutes of Schedule May 2022 By Day

Data via masFlight, includes regionals

On delays, Delta hasn’t been that bad at all, at least compared to the other two big guys. So if your flight is going, you’re not doing all that poorly. But what if it cancels? Let’s look at that.

Completion Factor May 2022 By Day

Data via masFlight, includes regionals

Looking at cancellations, well, yeah, Delta has done worse. Delta is an airline that does not like to cancel to the extreme — it will delay a flight 12 hours before it calls it quits and cancels — but it still has had some of the worst cancellation days in the last couple weeks so you know it’s struggling. May 28 saw every airline hurt with bad weather in the northeast, but Delta pulled back hardest and inconvenienced a whole lot of people.

That is bad, yes, but Delta tells me that of those people on canceled flights, more than 90 percent were put on flights the same day. It could have been worse… I guess?

That still means that there were a lot of people negatively impacted, of course. And I should note that I’m not trying to justify Delta’s performance here. This is bad performance for Delta, and the airline has had to take some even more obnoxious steps to fix it. For example, it cut more than 3 percent of its schedule in July. We spent a fair chunk of last weekend trying to help Cranky Concierge clients who were hit with schedule changes.

Even more odd, Delta has started to delay flights further out as it reworks a schedule. We had a client flying Friday whose flight was delayed by half an hour… on Tuesday. I suppose the basic idea here is it’s better to cause problems further in advance when there are more options available. But the fact that there are significant problems en masse is a foreign concept to the average Delta flier.

When we look at this over time, we can see that Delta is still outperforming the others. I went back to 2015 to take a look at Delta’s A14 arrival rate vs both American and United, by month. Here’s what that shows.

Arrivals Within 14 Minutes of Schedule Delta vs American and United by Month

Data via masFlight, includes regionals — shows percentage point difference

Let’s forget about the beginning of the pandemic, because that was not reality at all. There were three months where United’s A14 crept ahead of Delta’s since 2015 and one when American’s crept ahead. That American one was recent, happening last December, with the airline also nearly tying Delta in March.

What does this mean? At worst, it means Delta’s on-time performance is closer to the pack while its cancellations are elevated on some days. This kind of performance would just be chalked up to business as usual for any other airline. Delta gets no slack.

The question now is whether or not Delta can fix this. It let more people leave the company during the pandemic than any other airline. It was exceedingly aggressive at getting that “juniority” benefit that CEO Ed Basitan perplexingly crowed about, much to the dismay of all the employees who remained. And now, Delta is paying the price with operational issues it hasn’t seen in ages.

The near-term plan to fix is to just keep cutting flights. That is not a long-term fix. Delta hasn’t had a COO since Gil West left nearly two years ago, but its head of operations John Laughter, has been at the airline for a long time. This is by far his biggest test. Can Delta get back to where it used to be operationally? Or will it become just another member of the pack? Either way, Delta is having a bad time right now… and summer has just begun.

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20 comments on “Delta Learns the Downside of Running a Good Operation

  1. I’m setting the over / under on total comments at 60… and I think I’m still taking the over!

  2. Laughter needs to convince the C-Suite that all the cute little side projects happening right now need to stop until the operation is back hitting on all cylinders. Focus needs to be there before anything else.

  3. This Memorial Day meltdown is not without precedent. Last Thanksgiving got it started and then again another mini-meltdown over Christmas. All well-documented here and elsewhere.

    However, I give Delta credit for pre-cancelling around 3,000 flights in July (100 a day) and through the first week of August. They are not making the same mistake all the other carriers were making by laughably attempting to run a full schedule without full manning. I give them credit for surrendering to reality instead of (essentially) lying to their passengers, knowing full well they cannot execute, as Southwest and American did last fall.

    Yes, Mighty Delta has served itself a slice of humble pie. As noted, Delta holds itself to a higher standard, particularly in its operations. So we must assume this capitulation is particularly painful for them. Despite that, they had the fortitude to bite the bullet in an attempt to reduce day-of-travel chaos. And I acknowledge that effort.

  4. A14 is a misleading metric. Within 14 minutes is fine for someone that is terminating in their arrival station, but for the majority of customers that’s not the case. Arriving even 5 minutes after schedule can blow connections which causes further operational challenges, not to mention the connecting crew component. DLs extra block has helped it to have great A0 and an exceptional A14 in the past. It now as a great A14 and an average A0 which makes that extra block cost hurt even more.

    1. Ops – Delta’s A0 is still better than the rest and has been all year. I like to use A14 since that’s the metric DOT uses so it’s more relatable to the public data. But it still has A0 at 67 percent in May, that’s above American and 63 percent and United at 64 percent. (And just for fun, Alaska is at 60 percent, JetBlue at 54 percent, and Southwest at 53 percent.)

  5. That’s what happens when you lose both Gil West and Dave Holtz. Not to mention other key ops folks. Dave was top of class.

  6. Why does DL seem to have more issues over holiday weekends? The schedule period runs for a month or so, but the cancellation spikes didn’t occur the week before. Same with other holiday weekends.

    Is it more employees bid vacation over those weekends? Isn’t the same vacation liability cap in effect over those periods?

    1. it seems to be they run consistently tightly but manageable outside of those but that little extra push it is to much for them

  7. Agreed about the Connections Issues when flights are delayed, recently flew home from a vacation in Orlando in early May. Got a text when we woke up that morning, that our flight from MCO-ATL was delayed from 5:30pm to 6:51pm leaving us with a layover home in ATL that was too close for comfort. Was able to book us on an early 2:30pm departure home via DTW via the Delta App, which at least makes rebooking (even to alternative airports, took advantage of a delay on a flight in 2019 to fly us into SNA instead of LAX when we had a delay) easy, and got us home on a schedule that was much better for us. I had tried to rebook us earlier when Delta made a schedule change a few months before but was told I couldn’t do it free of charge because the schedule change was less than 2 hours.

    I know in February my boss was in D.C. for a conference and got notified the day before that Delta was canceling the late afternoon DCA-ATL flight for the evening bank of connections back to our small airport, forcing him to leave in the afternoon and resulting one of my colleagues having to cancel some of his meetings so he could get to the airport.

  8. This is a good reminder that the airline industry of which Delta is a part received one of the largest industry-specific bailout packages in United States history, a bailout designed *precisely to avoid this exact scenario from playing out.*

    *IF* there is ever a bailout package for airlines someday in the future (a really, really big “if”), it clearly must be accompanied by a “no voluntary layoffs, LOAs, early-outs” policy. Basically, “no, you do not get to take this huge amount of money and then downsize your workforce.” It is far better to “pay people to do nothing” than to allow airlines to set the stage for an ongoing industry-wide staffing meltdown.

    This “juniority” initiative was industry-wide and obviously short-sighted on its face. There is zero, *zero* excuse for downsizing your workforce when the feds are covering the payroll, unless your *stated intention* is to *literally* be a smaller airline at the end of the bailout. But none of these airlines said that. ALL of them said, “We’re going to go back to and even *exceed* our pre-pandemic schedule.” If that’s the case, then the bailout should have *never* provided a cover for the industry to downsize. It’s so incredibly insulting. If I were a lawmaker, I would be calling for heads to roll.

    Next time, if you want the money, no “juniority” garbage. It’s just so absolutely insulting to taxpayers, customers and employees and these executives should have nothing but *shame* surrounding them in every public appearance. Truly disgusting.

    1. To add to this, the headline that this is a “downside of running a good operation” can be reframed, industry-wide as, “these are the real costs of refusing to build resiliency in your operation,” or “the consequences of being too lean.”

      This leanness, this razor-thin operational and financial margin for error? It is *literally unnecessary* because we *literally bailed this industry out to prevent it.* The industry has been squeezing productivity and efficiency for decades and it is presently causing the industry to fall apart.

      Just this week Delta raised its Q2 revenue guidance! They are making money hand over fist *in the midst of the industry’s biggest institutional failure in decades!* WTF?!

    2. Don’t forget the 25% pay cuts for the employees that stayed. That was their reward for keeping the lights on during the worst of the pandemic.

      1. Technically a 25% cut in hours to comply with the language of the relief package. I got free coach (U) seats for staying. At the time Bastion predicted a return to our 2019 numbers wouldn’t occur until 2025. We’re 3 years behind on staffing.

        1. Spin it however you like; the end run was the same. Except for managers. They were all made while.

  9. CF
    This is one of the most objective and accurate discussions of DL’s May performance.
    The only thing to add is that DL’s practice during the pandemic of downgrading pilots to essentially non flying status is a huge part of the problem
    It is worth noting that American has cancelled as many flights in the first 3 days of June as DL did in all of May

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