Delta and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Sunday was not a good day to be working in the Operations department for Delta Air Lines. Or maybe it was, assuming you’re a fan of crisis management and shuffling thousands of passengers on hundreds of canceled flights. But I’m guessing much less of that really going on.

It started somewhat comically, with the rescheduled final commercial 747 flight from Detroit to Seoul-Incheon being scrubbed. The company initially planned for the final 747 to be a flight from Seoul to Detroit on the 16th. That flight still operated with all the ceremony of being a final flight despite the addition of one more 747 turn to Seoul due to operational needs (i.e. an A350 not ready to go).

That rescheduled departure was scrubbed on Sunday morning.

That was caused by a pilot no-show and no reserves available.

Delta’s expected last scheduled flight of the 747 was unfortunately cancelled Sunday due to an inability to fully staff the flight with its required four pilots. Customers have been given hotel rooms, meals and have been rebooked on an extra flight from Detroit to Seoul-Incheon for Monday morning. Delta exhausted all options to prevent the cancelation and apologizes to the customers delayed and inconvenienced.

That’s a mildly bad day for an ops team but nowhere close to foreshadowing what would transpire just a couple hours later when power was lost throughout the terminals at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Delta’s main hub.

The good news is that the air field didn’t lose power so air traffic control and navigation systems remained online. So did the North and South cargo facilities, meaning some flights (including a charter carrying the Atlanta Falcons) were able to continue operating. But commercial passenger operations were trashed.

For Delta the interruption is now in to 450+ flights canceled or diverted already, with more to come. Inbound international flights diverted because CBP couldn’t process the arrivals without power. Domestic flights diverted or canceled because the terminals are dark. The jet bridge systems at the gates need power to move. The baggage sort and handling conveyors need power to operate. The inter-terminal train needs power to get between the terminals. To say nothing of the need for computers to handle processing passenger boarding, the security screening checkpoints and everything else in the terminals.

It is worth noting that the Atlanta Airport Authority still has not announced what went wrong or when power is expected to be restored, despite chastising the Atlanta Journal Constitution for reporting what a Delta pilot told passengers. Somewhat ironically, that announcement came in Detroit.

So, yeah, this was a pretty bad day for Delta operations. One cannot help but wonder a little bit if the carrier tempted fate a bit too much during comments at the company’s investor day briefing last week.

CEO Ed Bastian suggested that moving IT Operations to a new data center meant there was no chance of another IT meltdown. Anyone who knows anything about IT systems knows that’s a ridiculous claim to make. COO Gil West doubled down, suggesting that only weather causes flight cancelations. Oopsie.

Also of note: Around 4:30pm Southwest Airlines made the decision to scrub the rest of the day’s operations at ATL. Delta is not giving up so easy. Which makes some sense given the significantly higher volume of affected flights and passengers Delta has. But, still, the company has to eventually concede that things are not going to fly and let passengers figure out alternatives.

At the beginning of a busy holiday travel week the recovery is going to be particularly rough. Planes and crew out of position plus high load factors don’t leave many options for recovery.

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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. Too bad DL does not have an interline agreement with AA to help re-route effected passengers from ATL connections…..

    1. So far it appears the blame is a fire in a Georgia Power underground vault that caused part of the grid to be isolated to prevent additional damage. But I’m sure more details will be forthcoming.

  2. “Somewhat ironically, that announcement came in Detroit.” Why is that “ironically?”

    “One cannot help but wonder a little bit if the carrier tempted fate a bit too much during comments at the company’s investor day briefing last week.” Are you serious?

    1. I find some irony in the fact that a pilot in Detroit made the announcement given that a missing pilot in Detroit caused the earlier issue.

      And of course I know that management’s hubris a couple days ago didn’t cause the outage today. But that hubris is very real and awkward to watch play out.

  3. I was on DL flying via Atlanta coming from Bogota on Friday December 8th and it was a nightmare, too. There was a little bit of snow at ATL and a total lack of de-icing equipment. Delta staff was lacking to help with the mess as well, because apparently Georgians can’t drive in light snow to get to work. So, the lack of communication from Delta was noticeable. I was delayed 7+ hours and ended up on the only flight that day that made it to PIT, where I live. The other passengers going to PIT (and many other cities!) were stuck in Atlanta for 1 to 2 days to be re-accommodated due to Delta’s high load factors. And I called Hilton to check for a room just in case and even as a Diamond, I could not get a room within 30 miles. So, people were going to be sleeping on the airport floor. This was the very week that DL’s CEO bragged that DL would not have another meltdown. But I experienced a meltdown that week on DL.

  4. I’m confused how DL is at fault for the power outage and its effects. The Airport and GA Power need to be taken to the woodshed for routing the primary and redundant power sources through the same passages, whatever architect designed that should refund his/her wages.

    As for a new DL data center, one was badly needed if it was the same one I worked in 17 years ago. I worked at Worldspan, in the same building as DL Tech, and our Worldspan CEO was worried that the datacenter sat just off the cargo terminal at the airport and that we’d be put out of business if a plane crashed into our building. Good for them for upgrading, it’s about time!

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