Delta meltdown: Pilots are on hold, too


— You might not be the only one on hold with Delta Air Lines this weekend. Their pilots are, too.

Delta was still recovering this weekend after canceling more than 3,200 flights in the wake of violent storms that battered its main hub in Atlanta.

But it’s not just passengers who have to wait on the phone. Delta’s pilots and flight attendants, who have tightly regulated work schedules, have been on hold with their own internal schedulers as well, said one Delta pilot.

“The crews don’t know what flight to do next, whether to go to the hotel, or fly to another city without the changes being made in the computer,” said the pilot, who asked not to be identified because he’s not authorized to speak. “And they can’t get through on the phones to find out, or even tell someone where they are.”

The airline has an automated roll call system to report when crews are out of place.

“But you’re still waiting for a call back. It still has been taking hours,” the pilot said.

Over the past few days, Delta has had to call in additional employees to get its operations back on track, a airline staffer told CNN. Employees at its Atlanta headquarters are being asked to help at the airport, and management pilots and flight attendants are being enlisted to fly — in plainclothes, if needed. The airline even ordered 700 pizzas for delayed customers.

By Saturday the rate of cancellations had “slowed considerably,” according to Delta spokesman Michael Thomas. And while long airport lines and telephone queues for passengers still persisted, Thomas said he expects Delta’s operations on Sunday to find a semblance of normalcy again.

Behind the meltdown

Delta Air Lines’ operational meltdown was a mix of natural and human-made disasters.

The mess began Monday when a smaller series of weather events rolled through Atlanta and Delta’s largest hub at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. That first hit left Delta’s operations weakened.

Then came Wednesday. Severe thunderstorms and tornadoes sprang up across Georgia and the southeastern US. CNN’s Severe Weather Team called it a “particularly dangerous situation” that stretched from South Carolina down to the Florida panhandle.

Passengers at the Columbia, South Carolina, airport huddled in a stairwell during a tornado warning. A half-mile wide twister was spotted in Georgia. The extreme weather lasted all day.

Gil West, Delta’s Chief Operating Officer, called the storms “unprecedented.”

“We are grateful for your patience and want you to know that we, as always, learn from these experiences,” West told customers on Thursday. “While we can’t control the weather, we understand the resulting recovery has not been ideal and we apologize for that.”

A blocked artery

The timing of this week’s storms — during spring break, when already crowded planes were packed with vacationers– only exacerbated Delta’s seat-shortage problem.

Sixty percent of Delta’s 1,250 planes fly through Atlanta each day. A blockage to that central artery means canceled flights, leaving planes and their crews unable to make connections and complete their scheduled city hops.

Foul weather, like winter storms, have felled airline operations before. In August, information technology issues forced a nationwide halt to Delta’s system.

So what made this episode different?

“They didn’t stop the operation to allow a sort of reset” for the weather, said a Delta staffer. “That naturally happened during the IT outages (last August) because nothing was flying.”