The Brancatelli File By Joe Brancatelli
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Delta: Deflect. Deny. Lie. Then Cancel and Delay.
April 9, 2017 -- Delta Air Lines has had an epic operational meltdown this week. Its response is about as you'd expect: denials, lies, deflection, misinformation--and, of course, thousands of long delays and cancellations and irate flyers and flight crews stranded around the world.
Delta, of course, starts by blaming bad weather. But that is one of its convenient deflections. As irksome as the weather has been, Delta has compounded the problem with its arrogance and prevarication, its insistence that things are recovering and its blind belief that it is the best airline in the world.
What this week's epic collapse proves is that Delta is, in fact, worse than just about anyone at service recovery. By running a "just in time" operation that pushes people and planes to and beyond the red line, it can't recover when it guesses wrong on a weather disruption. Its bluster--that it is better, so it need not backstop its resources with industry-standard cooperation--has worsened the problem.
Delta's chief operating officer, Gil West, wants you to know he's sorry, but it's not Delta's fault. It was unprecedented bad weather and heavy traffic and bad luck and the dog ate his homework and the alarm clock broke and why are you expecting to fly anyway and make his life difficult?
Lies. Deflection. Arrogance. Bluster. Alibis. Delta stock-in-trade.
What West is sorry about is that Delta has been shown to be the emperor with no clothes. Yes, it has run solid operations for the last few years, but now we learn that Delta was more lucky than good. Delta has no feasible back-up plans, no ability to correct for error on the literal and figurative fly and no real interest in spending what is required to make sure this kind of stuff actually works.
In case you've missed it, check the chart.* Since the problems started on Wednesday with a storm in Atlanta, Delta's daily performance has fallen fast. By Friday, it plunged to just 32 percent on-time. Yesterday, 72 hours after the storm, Delta did just 41 percent on-time and cancelled more than 15 percent of its mainline operations. Nearly half of Delta's flights that did get off the ground were delayed by more than 45 minutes, the Transportation Department standard for an "excessive" delay.
As of 5:30 p.m. today, FlightStats.com reports that Delta mainline had already cancelled at least 160 flights and delayed 1,250 more. That's about as many as the rest of the U.S. industry combined today--and this 96 hours after the storm.
The outlook for tonight, when business travelers need to get back on the road? Who knows? Tomorrow, well, it could be better. But Delta has been promising things would get better for days now.
How does an airline that fancies itself as the "on-time machine" find itself so humbled--and so desperate to deny, deflect and abdicate its responsibility to customers?
The Atlanta storm on Wednesday was harsh. On Thursday, another storm blanketed the East, affecting Delta's hubs in Detroit and New York. On Friday, as you golfers saw by watching the Masters in nearby Augusta, there were windy conditions around Atlanta.
But the weather, especially Wednesday's storm, is Delta's crutch. They are laying everything off on the weather and that is an outright lie.
Sometime this week, Delta's crew-scheduling computers went haywire. Several pilots have sent me video of pilot lounges crowded with aviators waiting to fly, willing to fly, wanting to fly. But Delta couldn't get them scheduled. Flight attendants report waiting around airports for hours without an assignment because Delta's scheduling regime collapsed. Computers didn't work, phones went unanswered, communications went dark--and planes sat idle while passengers waited hours and days for a flight.
I've heard tales from flight crews about how Delta's ad hoc efforts to "upgauge" aircraft to fly more stranded passengers actually worsened the problems. Flights that otherwise would have gone out on-time were delayed for hours because Delta impulsively laid on larger aircraft. But then they couldn't or didn't contact the extra flight attendants needed to operate. (One example: If you want to "upgauge" an approximately 190-seat Boeing 757 to, say, a Boeing 767 with around 260 seats, you need at least two additional flight attendants. And that's assuming you've got pilots "rated" to fly the larger 767.)
Delta has tried to deflect this issue by saying federal crew-rest regulations have hampered its ability to recover. That's baloney. With so many flights cancelled, there have been plenty of crews available, especially this early in April when monthly flight limits aren't an issue.
All of this is layered atop Delta's unfathomable corporate arrogance. The airline has had several computer glitches in recent months, so management does know it has IT shortfalls. Last August, when it had a massive, systemwide failure, Delta tried to blame Georgia Power, the local electric utility. But Georgia Power publicly called out Delta for the lie and Delta was forced to admit its own equipment was at fault.
Delta systems collapsed in January, too, and many departures were delayed for many hours. "This type of disruption is not acceptable to the Delta family, which prides itself on reliability and customer service," Delta chief executive Ed Bastian said then.
Consistently wonky IT systems haven't stopped Bastian and West and Delta's other C-suiters from pushing the airline's line employees and equipment to the limit. The maximum possible utilization of crews and aircraft may look good to security analysts, but it's hell on airline operations. It doesn't take much to cause a serious problem. This week proves that in spades.
But, wait, there's more. One of the few good things about the airlines is their traditional willingness to help each other out in a crisis. During IRROPS--industry jargon for irregular operations--airlines have for years been able to turn to competitors to accommodate stranded passengers. And they do this with pre-negotiated, industry-standard rates per customer.
Not Delta. Eighteen months ago, it cancelled its "interline" agreement with American Airlines. Delta felt that it was orders of magnitude more reliable than American and United, so American and United must pay it more to reaccommodate flyers on Delta flights. American refused. So when bad weather whacks Delta, as it did this week, it can't turn to American for help without paying the full, walk-up fare for each customer. And you know Delta bean counters don't allow that. Airlines are smart enough not to pay walk-up airline fares.
United did agree to pay Delta's higher-than-industry-standard rates, but Delta doesn't seem to want to pay to accommodate too many distressed passengers on United, either. I've heard from several travelers in the past 72 hours that Delta agents denied there was space available on United flights. They backed down only when the flyers showed the Delta agents that tickets could be purchased on United.com or the United app. Several Delta ticket agents confirmed to me that Delta's computers do block some United space, so they give inaccurate information to distressed passengers because they are literally shielded from the real facts.
I need not waste your time with the other stuff because you already know it by heart: The endless waits on hold as Delta's overwhelmed phone lines are unable to respond. The hours-long waits even if you are Delta SkyMiles elite. The delay and cancellation alerts that don't come. Automatic rebookings that never materialize. Monstrous lines at airport ticket counters. And, of course, the overflowing Delta SkyClubs as passengers wait vainly for flights that never operate.
None of this is ever acceptable, but it is even worse when Delta arrogantly boasts of several years of record profits and its place in global markets as an "investment grade" stock. And let's not forget Delta's infuriating habit of returning supposedly "free cash flow" to shareholders rather than investing in minimally reliable IT systems and an operation that doesn't try to run at 100 percent of capacity 24/7/365.
One thing did work right for Delta this week. Without notice, Delta computers hiked SkyMiles award prices for travel on many of its international partners.
That system worked just fine. It always does.
* The chart has been updated to include on-time and other statistics for Sunday, April 9.
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