Delta’s Operational Meltdown: “It actually worked”

Not surprisingly a decent part of yesterday’s earnings call for Delta Air Lines was focused on the carrier’s operational meltdown the week prior. A series of storms in Georgia served as the catalyst for nearly four thousand flight cancellations during one of the busier travel weeks of the year (Spring Break). The company believes the event will hit its top-line revenue to the tune of $125 million dollars. Which makes me question CEO Ed Bastian’s comments during the call when asked about the failures, specifically on the IT side of things.

It wasn’t a question that the IT didn’t work. It actually worked and it was worked as they designed – it got overwhelmed by the volume of broken rotations and cancellations and diversions. All of which needed to be put together on the fly at a level, an unprecedented level of volume that overwhelmed the systems a bit. So, the systems are working throughout. It was the size and the magnitude and the volume that we are experiencing that caused the delay.

Turns out the initial flight diversions and cancellations left far too many crew members out of position and the system responsible for rebuilding those pairings was crushed under the load. Of course, that could be the designed plan. Undoubtedly the system was originally designed when Delta was a much smaller airline. It is feasible that the system was never designed to handle the current level of operations. Alas, airlines seem too busy returning equity to shareholders (DL to the tune of $350mm last quarter) to focus on investments in their internal systems. At least not in a proactive manner.

Now that the company got burned to the tune of $125mm it will invest in updating the crew scheduling systems, those same systems that were working as designed during the meltdown. And, for good measure, Bastian calls it an industry-wide issue, deflecting blame from Delta’s troubles.

The big changes we are making is around technology investment. And getting better crew tracking and this is an issue that’s not just the Delta issue this is an issue for the industry as to how to minimize disruptions when they occurred.

I do give Delta some credit here. When we see a systems failure it usually is a dramatic one. Just like the power outage last summer.

Maybe lead the answer with “Our system needs to be rebuilt to keep pace with our strong current and growing operations” rather than “It actually worked and it worked as designed” next time. Because this just sounds silly.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. Delta is very lucky this United thing blew up to distract the general population and media. That being said the people that experienced the meltdown that went as planned have to have vivid memories of it.

  2. Absolutely they are lucky the UA thing happened as a distraction… One common theme between the two incidents – both CEOs are cocky and make too many excuses for sh*t. Just say the computer system was built for a smaller airline decades ago, and you are working to improve it. That’s it. Just like Munoz should have been far more apologetic, vs using internal jargon like “re-accommodate” in his response to the Dao thing. Instead they deflect, deflect, deflect and deflect more.

  3. “Our crew scheduling system relies on algorithms which do not scale well, and our recent growth left the system grossly inadequate to handle the complex situation triggered by the weather events. Also, we recently cancelled the interline agreements that our customers mistakenly thought they could count on to get people to their destinations during irregular operations.”

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