Embarrassing: Delta’s Christmas Crisis | One mile at a time

This is totally embarrassing. Delta normally prides itself on being incredibly punctual; in the past, it even prided itself on being “the time machine”.

The airline had an operational collapse during Thanksgiving, so it promised to investigate to make sure something similar didn’t happen at Christmas and now … something similar is happening at Christmas.

Ai: Delta Christmas cancellations

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are not working very well for Delta. Looking at data via FlightAware:

  • On December 24, Delta canceled 67 flights, or about 5% of its operation; as a point of comparison, American canceled zero flights and United canceled nine flights
  • On December 25 (so far, and it is still only morning), Delta canceled 123 flights, or about 10% of its operation; as a point of comparison, American canceled one flight and United canceled 28 flights

I am sure that the number of cancellations will only continue to grow throughout the day and over the weekend, given the typical domino effect that we see in irregular operations.

To be fair, the breakdown so far hasn’t been as bad as Thanksgiving. Just to compare:

  • The day before Thanksgiving, Delta canceled 96 flights, or about 4% of its operation
  • On Thanksgiving Day, Delta canceled 272 flights, or about 18% of its operation
  • The day after Thanksgiving, Delta canceled 162 flights, or about 9% of its operation

However, it’s not even 10am on the east coast, so I imagine that the number of cancellations throughout the day will only continue to grow, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Christmas Day was as bad as Thanksgiving.

What is causing Delta’s operational problems?

I think it’s safe to assume that Delta’s operational problems over Christmas are largely related to the problems of the Atlanta-based airline during Thanksgiving. It is true that there is a little more atmosphere at Christmas than at Thanksgiving Day at Delta centers, but nothing that fully explains the number of cancellations.

To make a long story short, Delta currently has a shortage of pilots. Due to the large number of pilots who have retired and left early, pilots are having to be retrained in new aircraft, and this is not an overnight process.

As a result, Delta does not have enough pilots to fly the right types of aircraft, in particular narrow-body aircraft.

Under normal circumstances, this is not a problem, but when Delta tries to increase vacation capacity, that is where it gets problematic. Although the airline probably managed to program only enough pilots, that left no room for sick pilots, operational problems, etc.

It is entirely fair if Delta is simply too widespread and cannot add capacity. The question is why the airline continues to overburden itself, when this is simply a repeat of what happened on Thanksgiving Day, a situation the airline promised to learn from.

It is also worth recognizing that American and United face many of the same problems as Delta, but the airlines have not had mass cancellations.


Delta is approaching 200 cancellations between yesterday and today, and I expect that number to continue to grow. Obviously, airlines are in a difficult situation, and I can understand perfectly how the airline can have a shortage of pilots available to fly the right planes.

The embarrassing part is that Delta is making the exact same mistake it made on Thanksgiving Day. Ultimately, it is about managing expectations – Delta should have anticipated this and reduced the schedule in advance, instead of leaving so many passengers stranded on Christmas Eve and Day.

(Tip of the hat to see the wing)