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I always thought Delta was reliable. Then came these five disastrous flights

What has it taken for an often revered airline to look like all the rest? Bad luck? Bad weather? Or bad decisions?
chris-matyszczyk
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer on
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Hard landing?

(A screenshot from a Delta video.)

Screenshot from a Delta video

Respecting a brand inspires you to be forgiving.

Most people -- not so many admit it -- allow their preferred brands to fail occasionally, in the belief that the benefits ultimately outweigh the pain.

Yes, even if it's an airline.

Which makes me wonder what is going on at Delta Air Lines

For many years, it was easy to believe that Delta had their act so (relatively) together. This was a clever operation run by clever people.

The airline occasionally even boasted of its efficiency, thoughtfulness, and, of course, deep wells of brand love.

Yet it's suddenly looking like, well, any other airline. Or, some might snort, even worse.

Over the last few weeks, I've heard from friends who expressly booked Delta and were severely pained.

A flight that was canceled without a rebooking was available the next day. A flight that was so delayed that the whole purpose of the trip was ruined. And one who witnessed the chaos in Atlanta, as scores of people were left stranded by Delta at the airport for 24 hours.

Five Flights. Five Bad Experiences.

It couldn't really be that bad, could it? I wanted to believe my friends were still anomalies.

But then I read of the suffering endured by five people flying into Detroit on Delta. Detroit is one of Delta's hubs. It's where you might expect -- I suppose I mean hope -- that the airline has its planes in a row and enough staff ready to fly.

Yet, as told by the travel site Miles to Memories, this was the tale of frequent flyers, members of the site's community, all trying to meet up together. They discovered that Delta was miles away from creating happy memories.

Five people, taking different flights from different cities into Detroit last weekend, offered tales of woe that suggested severe organizational incompetence, the sort you don't associate with the Delta brand.

Sample: "Flying Boston to Detroit [one flyer] had their flight canceled Friday morning a few hours before their flight. They ended up having to take a stand-by flight in the afternoon. This was after waiting hours in line at the airport to get their flight booked since everything was sold out online."

A familiar story for many travelers, you might think.

But how about this: "Flying from the East Coast a member had their three flights canceled completely and they were unable to make the meet-up at all."

Then there was the Detroit-bound passenger whose redeye from San Jose on Thursday was canceled and they ended up arriving at 4 am on Saturday morning.

Another "had their non stop flight changed to a 3-leg flight that would have gotten them in at midnight."

Perhaps the most telling, however, was this: "Flying from DCA (Washington DC) to Detroit the member had their flight canceled Friday morning." What did this person do? Why, "they ended up being able to find an American Airlines flight to rebook themselves on at the last minute."

If a popular view might be that if American Airlines has a solution available and Delta doesn't, it's worth wondering about the Earth's axis.

The Last Temptation Of Cash

I contacted Delta to ask why the airline was undergoing such a manifest mangling of its reputation. I'll update, should a response arrive.

I also asked whether the airline wishes it had done something differently in the past. This seemed an appropriate question as airlines are blaming the weather and that all-encompassing term "staffing shortages" for the current travel chaos, one that looks like it'll have a long run.

When the pandemic came along, airlines begged the government for many, many billions. And got them. Those billions were supposed to be used on keeping employee teams together. Airlines promised that no, no they wouldn't shed employees and trouser the cash.

Yet a look at Delta's numbers for 2021 shows that the airline spent 16% less on salaries and related costs than in 2019. Pilots and flight attendants were allowed to take early retirement. Some suggest that up to a third of all Delta's employees drifted away. Even today, Delta has 10,000 fewer employees than it did before the pandemic.

So now Delta and the rest are trying frantically to hire. Or are they? Recently, Delta CEO Ed Bastian remarked: "We're largely where we need to be for staffing."

The airline has hired 4,000 people this year. How many, though, have any airline experience? And how many are thrust into the job with very little time for training? How many even turn up on the first day of work?

It's All Good. Well, Mostly. Well, Maybe. Or Not.

Last week, Delta updated a blog post on its site. Its headline read: "Delta continues to focus on improvement in hot summer travel season.

Hot is, apparently, a euphemism for disastrous.

Delta's summary offers: "In recent months, we've made several adjustments to minimize schedule disruptions and bounce back faster when challenges occur."

It claims: "For June weekends month-to-date, Delta's network system weekend cancellations are down 35% from May." Imagine, indeed, how bad May was. I wonder how much of that was the weather's fault.

Delta insists that its employees are "working around the clock to support you." Well, some of its pilots are picketing to show you how bad, in their view, the airline has become. They're even writing open letters to Delta customers, saying the pilots' union has "lost confidence" in management. That's a kind of support for customers, I suppose.

Some may find it poignant that the airline decided last week to release some new advertising. "Start Your Odyssey," it declared. "Take new chances," it added. All a little difficult when your flight just got canceled and there isn't another one for at least another day.

Airlines will, of course, insist that the sudden demand for travel is unprecedented and couldn't have been predicted. It's as if they had no human psychologists on hand, there to guide the airline away from any money-cornering habits.

How much would Delta have now gained if it had kept more of its employees during the pandemic -- please, let me dream -- and been truly prepared for the current human desperation to fly somewhere, anywhere?

I'm being silly, of course. Revenue comes first. Headcount can always be fixed, right?

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