Delta meltdown: Delays drag into Sunday, but are improving

Delta Air Lines was still struggling get its flights back on schedule Sunday, the fifth consecutive day the carrier has been bedeviled by delays and cancellations.

The airline had canceled 135 “mainline” flights as of noon ET while about 560 more were running behind schedule, according to flight-tracking service FlightAware. Combined, those totals account for more than 20% of Delta’s entire Sunday schedule. It also doesn't include flights on the carrier’s regional affiliates.

Still, Delta’s operations appeared to be improving Sunday after four consecutive days of major cancellations. On Saturday, for example, Delta canceled 391 mainline flights while 1,300 more suffered delays. On Friday, more than 800 mainline flights were axed and 1,400 others were late.

Since Wednesday, Delta has canceled more than 3,000 flights on it and its regional affiliates. The fallout has left tens of thousands of customers scrambling to change their travel plans just as the busy spring break travel season is about to shift into high gear.

Delta apologized to customers and was waiving change fees for many customers looking for new flight options following the airline's operational meltdown. But the company also warned fliers that finding empty seats in the coming weeks could be challenging because “heavy spring break travel means open seats are very limited for rebooking.”

The scope of the disruption to Delta’s network that began with the Wednesday storms has been surprisingly large. It marks the airline’s worst operational run since a computer outage in August 2016 plunged the airline into crisis mode. And it was just this past January that another computer issue caused a disruption that spanned two days and caused the cancellation of nearly 300 flights and delays to many others.

As for Delta's latest problem, it began Wednesday when severe weather moved across the Atlanta area, prompting the Federal Aviation Administration to issue an usually long five-hour “ground stop” for flights there. Delta operates its busiest hub in Atlanta, and the disruption quickly led to a wave of delays and cancellations that cascaded across the carrier's network.

By Thursday, storms in the Northeast and Great Lakes hit more Delta hubs. The carrier has been struggling to regain its footing since.

As of  noon ET Sunday, cancellations were becoming less of a problem for Delta. But delays were affecting several of airline's hubs across the nation.

In Atlanta, about 70 flights were canceled but more than 350 were delayed. Those totals account for more than 15% of the day’s schedule at the world’s busiest airport, where Delta is by far the dominant carrier.

At Salt Lake City International Airport, another hub where Delta accounts for the majority of flights, close to 10% of Sunday’s flights were running late as of noon ET, according to FlightAware. It was a similar story at Detroit and Minneapolis/St. Paul – also Delta hubs – with FlightAware showing delays to about 7% of the day’s schedules at those airports.

While the delays affecting Delta’s hubs Sunday were a significant nuisance for fliers, flight operations were trending in the right direction for Delta. The number of canceled flights had fallen dramatically since the end of the week, raising hope -- however faint -- that Delta could see close-to-normal operations by the start of the workweek on Monday.

However, that likely won’t be the end of the story for Delta, which prides itself on being the most punctual and reliable of the USA’s “big four” airlines. Once schedules return to normal, expect Delta to face scrutiny about how one day of thunderstorms cascaded into five days of delays and cancellations.

Stay tuned …

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