Delta Air Lines cancelling hundreds of flights over Thanksgiving holiday

Nov 26, 2020

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Editor’s note: This post has been updated to add some background information from an airline analyst, a scheduler and from two Delta pilots.

Delta Air Lines – usually loath to cancel any flights – has cancelled hundreds of flights this Thanksgiving week.

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It’s the busiest travel time of the 2020 year so far, but beginning as early as Tuesday night, Delta began cancelling flights. The unusual activity was first flagged by Gary Leff at View From the Wing using Flight Aware data.

Flight Aware data on Delta cancellations Nov. 26, 2020. (Screenshot courtesy Flight Aware)


According to Flight Aware, as of Noon Eastern time on Thanksgiving day alone, Delta cancelled 263 flights. The airline cancelled 96 flights on Wednesday Nov. 25, and as of now, has another 85 flights cancelled tomorrow, and another 25 on Saturday.

JohnnyJet founder and editor-in-chief John E. DiScala (aka Johnny Jet) told TPG, “I find it shocking Delta canceled so many flights because they’re known as the best-run airline in the country.”

Related: US airlines see cancellations rise amid COVID warnings against Thanksgiving travel

Delta spokesman Anthony Black told TPG that a number of factors “have pressured our ability to timely staff several dozen scheduled flights. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused our customers,” he said.

Black said the vast majority of customers have been rebooked on same-day flights, and noted that, “customers are proactively contacted with new flight details and have the options of adjusting their new booking, receiving eCredit for future travel or seeking a refund.”

Related: Delta blocking seats through the holidays

Delta also reiterated its commitment to blocking middle seats as a safety measure during the coronavirus outbreak. (It’s one of only a few airlines that are still doing this). Black said the seat-blocking policies remain in effect despite the “operational adjustment period.”

It may have been as simple as not enough employees to cover added flights during the busy Thanksgiving week. Delta didn’t say what the various factors were.

An airline analyst told TPG on background that there are some serious labor issues between Delta management and the pilot’s union. Just this week, Delta pilots signed off on a deal that reduced some pay in exchange for the elimination of more than 1,700 involuntary furloughs set for Nov. 28.

The analyst told TPG, Delta may be dealing with a so-called “Blue flu,” where some pilots called in sick or refused to volunteer for flights because of potential job cuts and/or reductions in pay. The analyst said there may have been issues of misalignment with crewing and scheduling, and some unrealistic expectations about how many flight attendants and pilots might volunteer to work additional days during the Thanksgiving week.

Delta Air Lines First Officer Chris Riggins disputed there was any out of the ordinary sick calls. He is also Communications Chairman for Delta Master Executive Council overseeing the Delta chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA). He told me that 74% of pilots voted in favor of  the recent agreement to avoid furloughs, and “To pass a mid-contract agreement by a three-quarters margin is quite astonishing.  We see zero signs of pilots calling in sick in protest.”

Riggins continued, “What we see so far is sick calls are down over last year despite being embroiled in a global pandemic.”

TPG also heard from another Delta pilot who suggested it wasn’t a work slowdown or stoppage but a shortage of pilots for certain types of aircraft including the most-impacted 737s and A320s. He also said morale was actually high all things considered and that was why a majority of pilots had signed the recent deal to avoid furloughs. He suggested a lot of pilots were working on their days off over the holiday away from families, and despite another surge in COVID-19 cases.

Riggins told me that due to cutbacks earlier in 2020, there were “a smaller pool of pilots qualified and ready to fly in the fleets that are seeing an increased demand over this holiday.” He told me that, “.. cancellations would indicate that there aren’t enough crews available to cover all the demand.”

TPG also heard from a scheduler with 20 years experience who said there are always scheduling problems during the holidays but the added flights, COVID-19 restrictions, pay reductions and sick calls were all playing a role in the cancellations. The scheduler reminded me that airline employees should be considered frontline workers during the pandemic.

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My flight from Newark Liberty International Airport-EWR was among those cancelled this week.

I received a text message from Delta Tuesday evening that my flight the next morning had been cancelled. I called worried that there would be few other options because of the busy Thanksgiving travel season and the agent told me I had already been rebooked on flights via Atlanta and Salt Lake City that would have added hours and another stop to my trip to Butte, Montana.

Related: Which US airlines are blocking middle seats?

I knew there was a flight to SLC leaving around the same time the next morning from JFK, so I asked to be put on that flight instead and the agent not only easily switched it, but preserved my upgrade to first. In fact the plane was only about 25% full (if that). This exchange was typical of my very positive interactions with Delta since I switched my loyalty from American Airlines in 2019.

Delta EWR to SLC Nov. 25, 2020 DL706. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)


Hopefully, most of the impacted travelers get to their destinations with as little fuss.

Featured image by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy. 

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