The pilot scarcity results in rare flight cancellations at Delta through the Thanksgiving break

Passengers check bags for a Delta Air Lines, Inc. flight during the Covid-19 pandemic at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in Los Angeles, California, November 18, 2020.

Patrick Fallon | AFP | Getty Images

Delta Air Lines canceled hundreds of flights during the Thanksgiving hiatus as it faced staff shortages during the busiest week of travel since the coronavirus pandemic began.

While demand due to the pandemic is less than half of the prior-year level, the Transportation Security Administration airport screenings surged to over 1 million on Sunday and Wednesday, the highest in more than eight months.

On Thursday, Delta canceled approximately 300 flights, approximately 20% of its schedule, and approximately 160 flights on Friday, approximately 9% of its schedule.

“A number of factors have put pressure on our ability to fill several dozen scheduled flights on time,” Delta said in a statement on Friday. “We apologize to our customers for the inconvenience these flight cancellations have caused.”

The airline expects operations to return to normal over the weekend and said most customers whose flights have been canceled were rebooked on flights the same day.

The operational issues, previously reported on on the View from the Wing blog, stem from the fact that around 1,800 Delta pilots took advantage of early retirement packages that the company was urging to try to cut costs. And earlier this week, pilots approved a contract accepting partial compensation so as not to fly, which would avoid more than 1,700 vacation days by 2022.

The changes “have left a smaller pool of qualified and ready-to-fly pilots in the fleets, who are seeing increased demand this holiday,” said the pilots union, the Air Line Pilots Association.

Cuts in pilots can lead to cascade problems as they require training and also need to stay updated on certain aircraft and cannot simply switch from one to the other.

American Airlines, which took nearly 8,000 flight attendants on leave last month, is also addressing staffing issues this week and offering additional allowances to encourage cabin crews to sign up for more travel, their union, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, said.

According to a company spokesman, only two flights were canceled due to the staff shortage. “We are grateful to all of our team members who are working this week and this weekend to get our customers where they need to spend Thanksgiving,” the airline said in a statement.

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