Delta Gets a Free Pass From the Feds

Delta, Government Regulation

Delta received quite a gift from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) late last week when it was granted a slot waiver for operations at LaGuardia, JFK, and partially at Washington/National. This allows the airline to not fly even the bare minimum required for slots this summer and still hold on to them for the future. I can’t say I agree with the FAA’s decision-making here.

In Delta’s request, it provided four reasons why the FAA should allow it to keep its slots even though it wouldn’t be able to meet the already generous minimum flying requirements. Those reasons are:

  1. Airport construction at LaGuardia reduced available gates for Delta from 34 to 30. Gates and hardstands at JFK were also reduced due to construction on neighboring Terminal 1.
  2. Air traffic control delays in summer 2022 were higher than in summer 2019.
  3. There has been more severe weather in summer 2022 than in previous years.
  4. Crews are calling in sick at much higher levels in 2022 than in previous years.

When you read this, you probably say “no shit, Sherlock.” With the exception of the first point, these are issues that are hitting the entire industry, and not all airlines have run such poor operations as Delta this summer. You’ll remember Delta’s operation was very bad in June, and it pulled down its schedule from July on to compensate. Other airlines had the foresight to actually do that work further in advance.

It has to be pointed out that Delta is well aware of how slot rules work, and it should have planned to pull down less in New York than it did so it could obey the requirements. And those requirements really aren’t that strict.

The rules say airlines have to utilize slots at 80 percent or they could be at risk in future seasons. If Delta had been able to create a more flyable schedule in the first place, it could have diverted crews and resources to the slot-controlled airports so that it could reach the bare minimum slot requirement. After all, it’s not like the rule is that they have to be flown every single day. Being able to cancel up to 20 percent of flying should be more than enough buffer, and it has been in the past. Delta just says things are different… so let’s look at some numbers.

I took a look at operating data from Anuvu to see how June 1 – August 14 compares between 2019 and 2022 for Delta. To me, the most interesting was LaGuardia since that’s nearly all domestic and is the biggest operation of the three. Here’s how that looks.

Data via Anuvu

The only slot-holding data I could find was for summer 2021, so I’m just assuming those haven’t changed much and provide a good-enough estimate for this year. Assuming that’s the case, you can see Delta is underwater in 2022 after taking into account the canceled flights on top of the slots it hadn’t scheduled.

You’d think the FAA would have told Delta to go pound sand, taken their slots, and then given them out to new entrants/low-cost operators who want to get into the airports, right? Hahahahaha, funny. Nope, they gave Delta a pass.

I initially figured that the waiver would have been granted based on the first point about restricted gates, but no, that was resoundingly shot down. In fact, the FAA said the first three points were hot garbage.

Firing back at Delta’s gate complaint, the FAA said this:

FAA finds that the terminal redevelopment project at LGA has been in planning and underway for years and is nearly complete. Delta’s decision to reduce gate access there is a condition explicitly under its control, as Delta noted in its petition when it stated, “Delta made the difficult but necessary decision to reduce the number of gates at LGA from 34 to 30 – allowing Delta to significantly accelerate the overall construction schedule.”

So Delta reduced its own gates to speed up construction and then said that was reason for it to not be able to use all its slots as required. Brilliant move, but FAA saw right through it.

Oh and the JFK one? That was found to have “only minimal impact in highly irregular operations.” Let’s also remember that the slot waiver remains in place for international flying, so Delta already has the ability to fly less than 80 percent at JFK where it has a hefty international operation. According to Cirium data, JFK had nearly 400 fewer departures this July vs 2019, a decrease of more than 2 percent. That should have been a nice bit of relief.

Regarding air traffic control delays and weather issues, FAA laughed this off, saying that “such cancellations are not highly unusual and are intended to be covered by the 20 percent non-use allowance provided in the minimum usage requirements.” And that makes sense. Allowing airlines to cancel up to 20 percent of flights should be more than enough for an airline that has its ducks in a row. Delta just does not.

Now, it’s not like Delta got everything it wanted. It asked for a waiver from June 1 through September 30 at all three airports. The FAA decided to grant it only through September 5. Further, while it includes all JFK and LaGuardia flights, it only includes Washington/National flights to/from those airports. Still, Delta is pretty pleased, as it should be. I was provided this statement from the airline.

Delta people have worked tirelessly in taking meaningful actions over the summer to restore our operational reliability while working safely and intently to get our customers where they need to be. Our partnership with the FAA to gain slot relief at New York and Washington, DC airports will allow us to continue improving shared challenges and service reliability with minimal impact to customers.

I want to make one more point before I end, because I’m sure some of you will ask the question… isn’t this just like the waiver the feds gave to United at Newark, allowing it to cut flights without allowing anyone else to backfill? It’s not the same.

First and most obvious, LaGuardia, JFK, and National are Level 3 1 airports that have definite slots. Newark is a Level 2 airport which means it has less control on operations. And Newark has seen growth that led to gridlock while LaGuardia didn’t. For example, before the summer began and airlines were forced to pull down, here’s what happened in May according to Cirium data.

Data via Cirium

Newark shouldn’t be above 2019 levels. It was already jammed, and relief was needed. LaGuardia, however is below 2019 levels, or at least it was in May. Slots put a ceiling on LaGuardia’s operations while Newark’s are more fluid.

I imagine all the smaller airlines begging for more access into these airports will be howling with anger about this decision. Though the FAA warns this is a one-time thing, it seems like a very weak rationale for granting relief. If Delta can’t fly these slots at 80 percent utilization, then other airlines should be able to have the opportunity to do so.

14 comments on “Delta Gets a Free Pass From the Feds

  1. The only possible justification that I can think of for this move is if it is a backdoor way of trying to alleviate congestion at LGA, JFK, and DCA, by allowing Delta to not use its slots but without replacing the missing flights with those from other airlines. That said, while I haven’t taken a deep look at the numbers, I don’t think that congestion at the airports is bad enough to justify cutting total flights, and even if it were, this is a very, very odd way to go about it.

    As a question, how much does this move benefit JetBlue and American? I presume if the unused Delta slots were to be re-allocated to other airlines, JetBlue and American probably wouldn’t get many of them, so by reducing the entry/expansion of other airlines (or [U]LCCs) into these airports, does that help JetBlue and American?

    1. Fair point.

      As of this post, the ATC covering NY (ZNY), EWR, and LGA all either have or are forecast to have flight delays on Tuesday due to ATC staffing. (source: https://nasstatus.faa.gov/ ).

      If the slot waiver is really an attempt to reduce delays/congestion due to ATC staffing limitations, however, I still maintain that it’s a very odd and probably inefficient way to do it, even if it is somewhat hidden and (perhaps) politically savvy.

  2. So the FAA laughed off the first 3 points, the 4th was ludicrous on its face (crews are likely calling out more due to being over scheduled which is solely attributable to the aggressive labor force reductions by DL deapite cashing billions of dollars of checks from John Q Taxpayer) and they STILL got a partial waiver?!?!?

    Government at its finest, folks (insert head slapping emoji here). FAA offices are right down the street from me, I feel like going in and demanding an explanation!

  3. The media has been trumpeting for weeks that LGA has had the highest rate of cancellations of any airport in the US. It is doubtful the public will fault Delta for reducing gridlock in NYC.
    There have been repeated ATC delays for NYC due to staffing whether the FAA admits it or not. Weather may not be worse but ATC staffing delays are much, much higher and the airlines know it. Even if the FAA rejected DL’s excuses, they know full well that they are not fully staffed esp. at LGA which does not have many international flights. LGA, today, has ATC delays due to FAA staffing.
    EWR was slot-controlled until 2016 and those controls were dropped because UA, which still operates a majority of flights at EWR and had a majority of slots at the time, was not using its slots up to slot requirements. Rather than re-impose slot controls and reward UA with a majority of the slots, UA cancelled about 50 UA and UA regional carrier flights/day to bring the level of flights down to levels that the airport can support – and those levels are not likely to increase in the future. UA made its latest round of flight cuts well into the summer.
    DL’s request is partially retroactive so they were cancelling flights BEFORE they knew they would be given an exemption. And yet the LGA operation was still bad for all airlines.
    The entire basis for approval of the NEA by the DOT was to improve AA’s slot utilization at LGA and JFK which was below minimum usage requirements for years and the DOT’s requirement is not for an immediate return to compliance.
    Delta is not being given anything that AA and UA have not previously done. Unlike AA and UA, DL does not operate a majority of slots or flights at any of the NYC or DC airports.
    DL is back running at or near the top of the industry in fewest delays and cancellations since July. Even in May, the latest month for which the DOT has released data, DL had the best on-time of the US mainland airlines. DL has cancelled down to levels to maintain its on-time position which is far different from what other airlines have achieved by their cancellations. DL’s on-time for May at LGA was better than any carrier at LGA and by far better than UA at EWR or AA at DCA or B6 at BOS or any NYC airport.
    Since B6 just cancelled a bunch of EWR flights and are willing to give up a NK’s LGA slots, I’m not sure there are any takers who would fly these slots right now anyway.

    1. The LGA slots would likely get picked up right away, and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if DL didn’t subtly point out to the FAA that since the Spirit slots are already presumed to be opening up soon that there was no harm to competition by letting DL underuse the slots for a little while longer. JetBlue’s only willing to give up the LGA slots because they see that as a price they have to pay for the merger and/or NEA, and most of the NK destinations are already handled by flown by B6 itself (FLL, BNA, MCO, seasonal TPA) or are AA hubs (ORD, DFW, MIA). The only markets exited entirely are Myrtle Beach and Detroit.

      I agree no one would really want the JFK slots, though – I can see a few of them going to UA for very selective expansion of the premium-heavy service, Porter might pick up a few to add connectivity to JetBlue to offset the EWR suspensions, maybe a few international flights…but I just don’t see any of the domestic ULCCs or start-ups going in. And even if they did, unless there’s space in T4 or T7 I’m not aware of where would they set up shop?

      1. Delta only asked for an exemption to not use part of its slots for a 4 month period and the FAA granted the exemption for less than 4 months. These weren’t ever available for long-term use and the chances are high that DL would have figured out a way to use them up to the minimum levels if their exemption had not been approved or if they did not think it would be approved.
        The NEA still does not require AA to use all of its slots up to typical usage requirements; that is being phased in over a period of years and substituted using large aircraft to substitute for non-use of slots that supported smaller regional flights.

        The only way to prevent stuff like this from happening is for the FAA to have a wait list for slots that could be used on a temporary basis if regular slot holders cannot or will not use their slots; I doubt if any airline is going to maintain the aircraft and crew resources to jump in on at most a couple month’s notice for slots that can be used for only a few months.

        There was no harm to the airline industry unless some other airline was ready to start service on a short notice and it is still not clear that ATC could have accommodated a full schedule based on allocated slots.

        It is also a judgment call as to whether being on-time more or cancelling less is more important, esp. since schedule reductions are done further in advance. There are no DOT guidelines as to which is more important other than to minimize customer disruption.

        1. Did Delta get relief from flying the MSP/HND and PDX/HND route awards? Right now they are suspended.

          1. Presumably the US and Japan are agreeing to exempt each other’s carriers flights since Japan is still not open for most visitors. At this point, most US-Japan flights are not likely to restart until the spring of 2023.

            In contrast, S. Korea is open, Delta is adding 3 more SEA-ICN flights/week, adding a redeye westbound flight (late night departure from SEA, early morning arrival ICN) just as Delta is doing with more S. Africa and Australia flights. Presumably, all of these countries can accommodate the flights that are being added.

            One more thing re: DL and NYC/DC slots. Delta’s request was made just after airlines met with Sec’y of DOT Pete B in June – and the FAA noted DL’s request was in keeping w/ the DOT Secretary’s desire to minimize disruption to consumers.

  4. @CF- JFK, LGA, and DCA are level 3 airports, not level 1.
    How long till AA and B6 come begging the FAA to extend this relief to them since they are flying much higher levels of capacity than they can reasonably sustain/fly profitably?

  5. I would certainly think Southwest would welcome greater access to both LGA and DCA. Perhaps Mr. Snyder will update us after September 5th on the slot scenarios at these three airports.

  6. Every year it seems that there are always some version of delays and complaints at slot-controlled airports in both the summer and winter, with some slight variation of excuses and sob stories from the airports and airlines.

    The FAA really ought to just reduce the total slots at controlled airports by 5% across the board for all airlines when it gets a good opportunity to. The next time there’s a merger, sale, slot transfer, or request for temporary usage reduction from airlines, a few slots should just be permanently withdrawn as part of the deal to reduce problems and congestion for everyone.

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