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 The Brancatelli File

joe DELTA'S OPERATIONAL MELTDOWN

BY JOE BRANCATELLI

November 9, 2006 -- In the almost 14 months since Delta Air Lines declared bankruptcy, it has been on a desperate, breakneck drive to remake itself. It has canned Song, its low-fare service; slashed its domestic route network; dumped more than 120 planes; embarked on a massive international expansion; and, lately, declared itself on the way to recovery. It even giddily reported a modest quarterly profit this afternoon.

What Delta won't tell you, however, is that it is currently the least-reliable, most-delayed, most-likely-to-lose-your-luggage carrier in the nation. Simply put, Delta and its two primary Delta Connection commuter carriers, Atlantic Southeast (ASA) and the wholly owned Comair, run an unholy mess of a system. Even by the diluted standards of the post-9/11, bankruptcy-addled Big Six, Delta is an embarrassment.

If you are forced to fly Delta a lot, you probably already know all that. But if you don't have to fly Delta frequently, you may have missed some of the chilling specifics of the carrier's operational collapse. According to the monthly Air Travel Consumer Report released by the Department of Transportation (DOT) last week, Delta and its commuter vassals are now at the bottom of the on-time, cancelled-flights and lost-bag ratings.

In September, the latest month for which results are available, Delta finished 18th out of 20 carriers with a dreary 68.8 percent on-time rating. That's almost eight percentage points worse than the industry on-time average of 76.2 percent. The only carriers to fare worse? Comair, with a similar 68.6 percent rating, and ASA, which racked up an appalling 55.5 percent on-time rating.

Delta, Comair and ASA are also worst in the nation when it comes to the "regularity" of being late. According to the DOT, 1.4 percent of the airline industry's flights ran late in September at least 70 percent of the time. Delta's rate was twice the industry average, however. Comair was about six times worse because 8.3 percent of its flights ran late at least 70 percent of the time. ASA was the worst of all, operating 10.7 percent of its scheduled flights late at least 70 percent of the time. (In August, Delta itself was better than the industry average in this category, Comair was about as bad as it was in September and ASA racked up an astounding 15.7 percent rate of flights delayed 70 percent of the time.)

As if running late wasn't enough, Delta and its commuter airlines were much more likely than any other Big Six network to simply cancel your flight. Industry-wide, September's flight-cancellation rate was 1.7 percent. But Delta and Northwest tied as the worst Big Six carrier with a cancellation rate of 1.9 percent. Comair cancelled 2.8 percent of its flights and ASA was at 3.1 percent, good for 18th and 19th place in the ratings.

Last month, the DOT reported on denied-boarding rates for the first six months of the year and guess which carriers finished at the bottom of the barrel? Yup. As an industry, 1.22 passengers out of 10,000 were involuntarily denied boarding. But Delta was almost twice as bad, with a rate of 2.07. And Comair (2.63) and ASA (at 5.19 per 10,000) were the two worst carriers rated by the DOT.

All of these delays, cancellations and denied boardings naturally created havoc with Delta's baggage-handling skills. In September, the first full month of the new restrictions on carry-on liquids and gels, the entire industry was hit with rising "mishandled baggage" rates. The industry average of 8.25 reports per 1,000 passengers was nearly twice as bad as the industry average in September, 2005. But even within those widened parameters, Delta, Comair and ASA were dreadful.

Delta's mishandled baggage rate of 9.58 per 1,000 passengers was the worst among Big Six airlines. And the performance of Comair (18.00) and ASA (24.13) was downright alarming. To put those numbers in some kind of perspective, consider this. Delta's old Song planes, many of which are still flying, put 199 seats on a Boeing 757-200. At a mishandled-bag rate of 9.58, it essentially means that about two passengers on each of those planes has a problem with their luggage. Comair's fleet is largely composed of 50-seat regional jets (RJs). With a botched-bag rate of 18 reports per 1,000 passengers, it means that about one passenger on each and every Comair RJ in the air is separated from their luggage.

Delta executives I talked to this week insisted that the root of the carrier's problems was the state of the runways at Atlanta/Hartsfield, the airline's primary hub. One of Hartsfield's five runways has been out of service for repaving recently.

True enough. But that excuse does not explain Delta's atrocious performance at Kennedy Airport in New York, where the airline's runaway expansion this year has pushed its aging, decrepit facilities at Terminals 2 and 3 to the brink of collapse. A $20 million spruce-up of the generations-old buildings--the oval-fronted Terminal 3 is the former Pan Am Worldport that first opened in 1960--simply hasn't been able to keep pace with Delta's freakish JFK expansion.

By Delta's own figures, it has added flights to 15 new international destinations and a dozen domestic cities from Kennedy in the last year. That doesn't even include the new flights to Mumbai, launched on November 1, or the new flights to London/Gatwick and Accra, Ghana, which begin later this fall.

The JFK ramp-up has been an operational nightmare. The old terminals are crowded, cramped and uncomfortable. They were never designed for in-tandem operation and a dreary walkway connects the two creaky facilities. Neither building is capable of handling the number of planes, passengers and bags that Delta's new schedule--a slap-dash mix of long-haul international flights and regional-jet commuter flights--has generated. And JFK itself is plagued by delays, especially when Delta's international flight banks are scheduled to arrive and depart.

The result? Meltdown in every sense of the word. According to the DOT report, just 69 percent of Delta's 988 flights operated on-time in September. Tasked with flying Delta's recently launched feeder network into JFK, Comair fared much, much worse. It had 1,740 arrivals at JFK in September but just 48.9 percent of them landed on-time. In comparison, JetBlue Airways, JFK's largest, had more than 4,100 arrivals at Kennedy in September and managed a 76 percent on-time rating. American Airlines, which also operates an overseas hub with connecting domestic flights at JFK, managed a 74.1 percent on-time rating for its 936 Kennedy arrivals in September.

The depth of the collapse of the Delta network in general--and JFK in specific--can be seen by the DOT's monthly list of flights that arrive late 80 percent of the time or more. All 25 of the most-delayed flights in the nation in September were operated by Delta, Comair or Atlantic Southeast and 17 of them operated to or from Kennedy. Half of the 50 most-delayed flights in the nation in September were Delta or Delta Connection flights using Kennedy.

And the specifics of the delays would be hilarious if they weren't so unbelievable. Comair Flight 5283 between Kennedy and Washington/National was late all 30 times it operated in September. The average delay was 79 minutes--for a flight that is only scheduled for 77 minutes. Comair 4954 between National and JFK was late 20 of the 21 times it flew in September. The average delay was 91 minutes! Two separate Comair flights from JFK to Richmond, Virginia, were late 77 and 78 minutes on average during September.

Layer all this atop ad hoc fleet maneuvers--earlier this year, for example, Delta abruptly shifted dozens of domestically configured Boeing 767s to international routes without first installing international business-class seats--and several recent retroactive changes to the SkyMiles frequent flyer program and you have a carrier that has abandoned any claim to quality, value for money or consistency.

Delta management will tell you that all of the delays, cancellations, lost bags, fleet changes and route upheaval was necessary for the airline's long-term survival. The frenetic and poorly executed growth plan at Kennedy is justified because it can be profitable.

But that just raises the obvious question: Does any airline operating this badly deserve to survive?

Copyright 1993-2006 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.