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The real story behind Delta’s flight full of 1,000 lost bags — and no passengers

July 14, 2022
4 min read
The real story behind Delta’s flight full of 1,000 lost bags — and no passengers
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Delta CEO Ed Bastian raised eyebrows and made headlines on Wednesday when, during an earnings call with analysts, he said Delta had commissioned an aircraft just to retrieve customer luggage that had piled up at London's Heathrow Airport.

It's true that this week an Airbus A330-200 flew back to the U.S. from Heathrow with 1,000 bags and no passengers — but that's only part of the story. It wasn't initially sent there for that job.

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During Wednesday's call, Bastian was asked whether the airline had been able to get its baggage handling under control after a higher number of lost bags than usual this spring and early summer.

“We had a separate charter just to repatriate bags back to customers that have been stranded because of some of the operational issues that European airports were having,” Bastian said. "We did that on our own nickel just to reunite our Delta customers with their bags as quickly as possible."

In a follow-up, a spokesperson for Delta confirmed that the airline had loaded stranded luggage from Heathrow on an empty flight back to the United States.

But this wasn't a specially chartered plane that Delta sent to Heathrow on a cargo mission. Rather, this was a "creative solution," as the airline called it.

Delta was making the most out of a crummy situation that otherwise would have seen a ferry flight go to waste as a result of Heathrow limiting the number of daily passengers departing from the London hub.

Related: Delta CEO apologizes for recent flight woes, pledges a better end to summer

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On Monday, July 11, Delta flight 17 had been scheduled to fly from London to Detroit before being canceled at the last minute. The cancellation was a result of the wider Heathrow passenger limits that the airport imposed due to a surge in travel demand coupled with understaffing at the airport. The situation had led to long queues, missed flights and a pile-up of bags over the last several weeks as the limited staff struggled to keep up with flights.

While passengers originally ticketed on DL17 were rebooked on other flights, the plane that was supposed to operate the flight, an Airbus A330-200 with the tail number N854NW, still needed to return to Detroit so that it could operate that evening's flight back to London, DL18.

Since the aircraft was flying back to the U.S. anyway, the crew and airline made the "operational decision" to retrieve around 1,000 passenger bags from Heathrow's luggage storage rooms and fly them back to Detroit so they could be forwarded on to their owners.

Notably, according to the Delta spokesperson (and in accordance with various safety regulations), the bags were all loaded into the cargo hold — not the passenger cabin, which remained empty.

The ferry flight, numbered DL9888, left Heathrow at 3:33 p.m., according to FlightRadar24, just under three hours after DL17 had been scheduled to depart.

Regardless of the details, news of the baggage-laden flight served to underscore the current challenges and dysfunction at Heathrow as well as other hubs in Europe, which have been caught understaffed and overwhelmed by strong travel demand.

Earlier this week, Heathrow said that it would impose a cap of 100,000 daily departing passengers through Sept. 11 — 4,000 fewer passengers than it otherwise expected to see each day — and asked airlines to stop selling tickets for the summer.

Also this week, Icelandair said that it had flown teams of baggage handlers to Amsterdam Airport Schiphol (AMS) to help ease pressure on overwhelmed staff at the Dutch hub. Similar baggage pileups appeared to be occurring at Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport in France.

Related: Delta will pay flight attendants for working while boarding flights, a major change-up

The Delta ferry flight presented a good opportunity for the airline to put a dent in the baggage issue and showed creative and timely thinking. The airline used the opportunity to at least be able to reunite some passengers with their lost luggage, at the expense of a bit more fuel burn due to the added weight on the flight.

So while a plane did fly with just crew and bags across the ocean, that wasn't the original plan. Instead, it was Delta — creatively, and effectively —making the most of a bad situation.

Featured image by LightRocket via Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

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Why We Chose It

Sometimes it's worth a large investment to reap the benefits of a great credit card. That's exactly the case with the Amex Platinum card. In exchange for the annual fee, you'll unlock access to the Amex Membership Rewards program that let you access airline and hotel transfer partners, along with new lifestyle and travel credits. This card is also incredibly rewarding for travel purchases, helping you rack up a ton of Membership Rewards points for your next award trip.

Pros

  • The current welcome offer on this card is quite lucrative. TPG values it at $1,600.
  • This card comes with a long list of benefits, including access to Centurion Lounges, complimentary elite status with Hilton and Marriott, at least $500 in assorted annual statement credits and so much more. (Enrollment required for select benefits.)
  • The Amex Platinum comes with access to a premium concierge service that can help you with everything from booking hard-to-get reservations to finding destination guides to help you plan out your next getaway.

Cons

  • The high annual fee is only worth it if you’re taking full advantage of the card’s benefits. Seldom travelers may not get enough value to warrant the cost.
  • Outside of the current welcome bonus, you’re only earning higher rewards on specific airfare and hotel purchases, so it’s not a great card for other spending categories.
  • The annual airline fee statement credit can be complicated to take advantage of compared to the broader travel credits offered by competing premium cards.
  • Earn 80,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $6,000 on purchases on your new Card in your first 6 months of Card Membership. Apply and select your preferred metal Card design: classic Platinum Card®, Platinum x Kehinde Wiley, or Platinum x Julie Mehretu.
  • Earn 5X Membership Rewards® Points for flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year and earn 5X Membership Rewards® Points on prepaid hotels booked with American Express Travel.
  • Get $200 back in statement credits each year on prepaid Fine Hotels + Resorts® or The Hotel Collection bookings, which requires a minimum two-night stay, through American Express Travel when you pay with your Platinum Card®.
  • $240 Digital Entertainment Credit: Get up to $20 back each month on eligible purchases made with your Platinum Card® on one or more of the following: Audible, Disney+, The Disney Bundle, ESPN+, Hulu, Peacock, SiriusXM, and The New York Times. Enrollment required.
  • $155 Walmart+ Credit: Cover the cost of a $12.95 monthly Walmart+ membership with a statement credit after you pay for Walmart+ each month with your Platinum Card. Cost includes $12.95 plus applicable local sales tax. Plus Ups are excluded.
  • American Express has expanded The Centurion® Network to include 40+ Centurion Lounge and Studio locations worldwide. There are even more places your Platinum Card® can get you complimentary entry and exclusive perks.
  • $200 Airline Fee Credit: Get up to $200 in statement credits per calendar year in baggage fees and more at one select qualifying airline.
  • $200 Uber Cash: Enjoy Uber VIP status and up to $200 in Uber savings on rides or eats orders in the US annually. Uber Cash and Uber VIP status is available to Basic Card Member only.
  • Get up to $300 back per calendar year on the Equinox+ digital fitness app, or eligible Equinox club memberships when you pay with your Platinum Card. Enrollment required. Learn more.
  • Breeze through security with CLEAR® lanes available at 100+ airports, stadiums, and entertainment venues and get up to $189 back per calendar year on your membership when you use your Card. Learn more.
  • $695 annual fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees