Delta is short on flight attendants, even as it warns of possible furloughs

Jul 20, 2020

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Flyers on Delta Air Lines faced an uptick in delays and cancellations this past weekend as the carrier struggled with too few flight attendants — even as the carrier is warning of potential furloughs this fall.

More flights on the Atlanta-based carrier were delayed or cancelled July 17-19 weekend of than on many of its largest competitors, including American Airlines and United Airlines, according to data from FlightAware. Southwest Airlines also saw a high number of delays, though it cancelled far fewer flights.

Delta spokesperson Morgan Durrant told TPG that a “handful” of the cancellations were the result of the airline’s staffing issues The rest, he said, were largely the result of capacity reductions as the airline pulled back flights in response to fewer travelers flying to Florida from New York because of COVID and quarantine concerns.

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Delta Airlines airplanes at the Atlanta airport
Delta Air Lines planes at the Atlanta airport. (Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy)


The unexpected turn of events at Delta underscores a recovery that many U.S. airlines say has stalled amid the resurging pandemic.

Things looked good for U.S. airlines in June. COVID-19 cases were declining, giving some a sense that the worst of the pandemic had passed. At the same time, an increasing number of Americans were returning to the skies, prompting schedule planners to add back more flights for the summer.

“Then July happened,” Delta senior vice president of inflight service Allison Ausband told staff in a July 19 internal memo viewed by TPG. “Now we’re finding ourselves in a situation where we’re in need of additional staffing.”

The return of travelers in June proved fleeting. A resurgence of COVID-19 cases coupled with new travel restrictions resulted in net booked passengers — or new reservations minus cancellations — falling slightly at the end of June before plateauing at down around 80% year-over-year for the first two weeks of July, according to data from trade group Airlines for America (A4A).

Related: Delta says air travel recovery has stalled, hopes more flyers return by end of summer

Despite that plateau in passenger numbers, however, Delta is operating more charter flights and has seen unscheduled absences among cabin crew double from June to July, according to Ausband’s memo. The airline has asked active cabin crews who can to work extra flights since at least July 13, according to internal communiqués viewed by TPG.

“In a year that feels like Alice looking through the looking glass,” Atmosphere Research president Henry Harteveldt said on the situation. “This is one of the most unusual, ironic outcomes we are seeing.”

Harteveldt said the unscheduled absences are likely due to fears of COVID-19, especially among crews who have to work flights to infection hotspots as well as to where more people object to wearing a mask. He also doubts that the staffing issues are limited to Delta.

Related: Delta gives pilots ultimatum to take a pay cut or be furloughed

Delta’s cabin crew shortage is the latest surprise twist in the coronavirus saga. It comes at a time when every major carrier — including Delta itself — is warning the opposite: overstaffing that could force mass furloughs or layoffs this fall amid a stalled coronavirus recovery.

“We are unfortunately still overstaffed in some areas of the business,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian told staff in a July 16 memo, thanking the 17,000 people who took voluntary departure packages and 40,000 who have taken unpaid leave to date in the crisis. Avoiding furloughs will take some “creativity,” he added.

Around 25,000 of Delta’s 91,000 employees were flight attendants prior to the pandemic.

Durrant declined to comment on whether Delta’s current lack of flight attendants will impact its decision on potential furloughs this fall. He did reiterate Ausband’s comment that the airline does not expect its staffing issues to continue into August.

Related: Air travel recovery may come slower than expected

U.S. airlines cannot involuntarily furlough or layoff staff until Oct. 1 under employment protections under the federal government’s coronavirus aid package, or CARES Act. A number of labor unions, including the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) and Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA), are pushing for an extension of those protections.

Delta cancelled 21 flights on July 17 and another 27 flights on July 18, FlightAware data shows. On both days this is more than double the number of cancellations at American, Southwest and United, none of which canceled more than eight flights on either day.

By Sunday, July 19, Delta’s operations had improved with just six cancellations though 114 flights were delayed.

Delta is scheduled to operate an average of 2,280 flights a day in July and an average of nearly 3,000 flights a day in August, according to Cirium schedules. The airline has shaved just over 8,400 flights — or an average of around 270 a day — from its planned August schedule since last week.

Related: Delta Air Lines retires more jets amid shaky outlook, nearly $6B quarterly loss

Featured image by Rob Carr/Getty Images.

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