Delta Pilots Union Blames Thanksgiving Chaos On COVID-19

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In the lead-up to the Thanksgiving holiday, Delta Air Lines canceled hundreds of flights. It was an unusual move for an airline that prides itself on not canceling flights. At the time, there was speculation a worker slowdown was a contributing factor. Simple Flying reported on that speculation. However, this week, a leading Delta pilot refuted that speculation, saying there was no organized sick out.

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Delta canceled over 500 flights last week. Photo: Delta Air Lines

An opportunity lost for Delta Air Lines

Officially, the Thanksgiving holiday travel period ran from Friday, November 20, until Sunday, November 29. The TSA says approximately 9.5 million passengers passed through airport security checkpoints over this time. There were over one million passengers every day between Friday, November 27, and Sunday, November 29.

That’s way down on normal passenger numbers but still the best numbers since March. So when Delta canceled over 500 flights last week, it caught people’s attention. That closely followed a deal between Delta Air Lines and the Air Line Pilots Association to avoid impending pilot furloughs. There were reports many pilots remained unhappy with the deal. In the lead-up to the best travel weekend in many months, an under the radar worker slowdown was flagged as a contributing factor to the cancelations.

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The cancelations were due to a number of factors, including high COVID-19 infection rates among Delta’s pilots. Photo: Denver International Airport

Pilots were not to blame for cancelations, says Delta union leader

But in a memo to pilots on Monday, Captain Ryan Schnitzler, Chairman of the Delta branch of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), said that suggestion was irresponsible and preposterous.

“Not only was there not an organized sick out, but the data shows that sick calls, year over year, have been down in 2020,” Captain Schnitzler, a New York-based Boeing 737 pilot, wrote.

He said there were several contributing factors behind Delta’s spate of canceled flights. Captain Schnitzler was critical of pilot training issues at Delta, saying it would “put us at an operational disadvantage when demand rebounded.” He says too many line check pilots (LCPs) have been retired or displaced, leaving their ranks thin.

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“As a result, OE training is getting backed up significantly and, to make matters worse, it is taking six to nine months to train new LCPs in many cases.”

Hoping to capitalize on increased demand, Delta added more flights to its schedules over Thanksgiving. But Delta has too many pilots offline and/or unavailable for the understaffed narrow-body fleets. Captain Schnitzler said;

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“This confluence of events … created yet another perfect storm of operational disruption.” 

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Delta pilots did their best over the Thanksgiving holiday period according to ALPA. Photo: Delta Air Lines

COVID-19 impacting pilot ranks at Delta Air Lines

Captain Schnitzler also said COVID-19 was having an impact among pilot ranks.

“We are witnessing increased levels of infection within our pilot group. Currently, Delta pilots are leading the new infection rate among all employee groups at Delta. In November, we saw a 113% increase to NFLY status.”

While unsure why, Captain Schnitzler suspects the domestic rotations constructed in October and earlier as a possible cause of infections. He says that lead to split rotations with up to seven cockpit crew changes per trip. Captain Schnitzler says this is a good way to spread the infection exponentially if a single pilot has COVID-19. He also notes Delta Air Lines has since stopped doing this.

Captain Schnitzler says COVID-19 remains a problem at the pilot training center. He says it is continuing to spread there.

The Delta union leader stridently criticized reports Delta pilots contributed to the Thanksgiving cancelations. He says the opposite occurred, with Delta pilots going the extra mile.

“We did our jobs this holiday weekend. As pilots, we went above and beyond as we
always do and carried this operation as the leaders that we were hired to be.”

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