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

Jul 14, 2022

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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

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 photo by Nicolas Economou/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images.

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