Thursday, May 04, 2017

What Caused an Epic Meltdown at Delta Air Lines: The airline’s internal investigation blames jammed phone lines for cascading problems; after pilots and crews got busy signals, they didn’t know where to go; changes to come before the summer

The Wall Street Journal
By Scott McCartney
Updated May 3, 2017 3:28 p.m. ET

Spring break for hundreds of thousands of Delta Air Lines passengers was disrupted by thunderstorms in Atlanta that led to an epic meltdown for the usually reliable airline. At the root of 4,000 canceled flights: telephone busy signals.

An internal investigation into the April failure found the biggest problem was that Delta’s 13,000 pilots and 20,000 flight attendants calling in for new assignments couldn’t get through to the people in Atlanta on the front lines of rebuilding an airline schedule.

Though puzzling in the age of instant digital communications, it turns out employees were dependent on dialing and circuits were overloaded. Computers told gate agents rescheduled crews would be there; customers waited at gates for hours. Then flights would end up canceled for lack of a crew member lost in Delta’s communications fiasco, unaware of the assignment.

A recovery that should have taken the airline a day or two stretched into the following week. In Atlanta, flights were canceled well after midnight, after underground airport trains had shut down. That forced dazed vacationers to walk more than a mile through corridors littered with sleeping bodies like a zombie apocalypse. (The airport says it did keep trains and concessions operating late some nights and provided water, blankets and amenity kits.)

“Our infrastructure was overwhelmed,” says Gil West, Delta’s chief operating officer. “We know we can’t control the weather, but we definitely own the recovery.”

The Delta collapse, somewhat overlooked while attention was focused on the violent dragging of a United passenger off a plane in Chicago on April 9, has significant implications for travelers in the spring and summer thunderstorm season. Delta says it is ready to handle summer crowds and storms and is already making changes in its operation based on findings from last month’s mess. But the episode is a reminder for travelers of the hazards of airline reliability when booking flights too close to big events like weddings or cruise-ship departures.

Thunderstorms are more difficult for airlines to handle than blizzards or hurricanes because their timing and location are hard to predict. The concern for travelers is whether bigger consolidated airlines are now less nimble and more complex, and thus more prone to major disruption from routine storms.

What’s more, back-office issues have proven to be big problems at Delta and other carriers. Last August, a power failure at its control center crippled Delta. A computer glitch in January led to canceled flights. Southwest Airlines also had a computer failure in 2016 that led to major disruption for travelers.

Delta says there was nothing routine about the triple whammy of storms it weathered the first week of April. The airline says its crew-tracking system had handled the load in the past, but this time found its limits.

Atlanta is the thick trunk on Delta’s flight-schedule tree. About 60% of Delta’s 1,250 airplanes go through Atlanta each day. It’s the world’s largest airport in both passengers and flights. Trouble in Atlanta cascades world-wide.

Delta says it, and Atlanta, aren’t too big to handle storms. But the airline has learned where it needs to spend on more capacity. Delta created a task force of nine different work groups to autopsy the meltdown.

Mr. West and CEO Ed Bastian sent a memo to employees Wednesday with results of the task force investigation and changes that were being made. “Thanks for pulling Delta out of the ditch,” the memo said. They noted that one problem was that many positions were short-staffed for holiday crowds because so many Delta employees had themselves taken spring-break vacation. They promised to boost spring-break staffing levels in the future.

Changes are already happening, Mr. West says. The older crew-tracking communications system, which has been previously expanded to allow for electronic communications in routine rescheduling situation, will be expanded.

Delta thinks it has found better ways to anticipate thunderstorms. In addition, it will make adjustments to add more buffer to crew schedules to absorb delays before they hit mandatory rest requirements. And Mr. West says Delta had already started to keep more crews together with the same plane all day, and will now do that more. This can minimize disruption. If a plane, pilots and flight attendants are all scheduled to reshuffle to different flights, a single delay can impact three other flights.

The airline will also double the size of the crew-tracking team and add phone lines for them by June. And by the end of August executives hope to have a system to send crews information about their trips electronically.

“We found a limit to our operation and we’ve learned from it,” Mr. West says.

The storm that hit Atlanta on Monday, April 3, ranked as the seventh-worst in Delta’s history in terms of number of flights delayed. Delta called in pilots and flight attendants from reserves and recovered on Tuesday. That drained resources such as extra crews.

Wednesday brought seven different thunderstorms through Atlanta, spread out from 6 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. In all, 48% of Delta’s schedule was impacted. That’s almost twice as big a punch as the previous worst thunderstorm in Atlanta, which delayed 29% of a day’s flights.

“Those two thunderstorm days were unprecedented in our history,” says Dave Holtz, senior vice president-operations and customer center.

The airline’s crew-tracking group again set about reassigning pilots and flight attendants. Then the storm worked its way up the East Coast and hit the New York area on Thursday, April 6, shutting down many Delta flights at Kennedy and LaGuardia airports. The third event proved to be the tipping point, throwing crew schedules into disarray.

“We couldn’t keep up with the volume,” Mr. West says.

Some pilots who commute to their base city couldn’t hitch rides on Delta flights because the few that were flying were so full. Some were stuck in cities where they had overnighted but now had no plane to fly because so many flights were canceled. Delta decided during the crisis it needed to give crew members priority over passengers. Passengers were enticed to give up seats with gift cards worth hundreds, even thousands, of dollars.

By Sunday the operation was back to normal. But it took several more days to get stranded passengers where they needed to go.

Mr. West says Delta’s crew-tracking system, which he said is old but has received a 50% capacity improvement over the past year, can send automated voice mails or emails to crews in typical storm recovery situations.

But this time there were too many questions that required phone calls, such as queries about particular assignments or lack of assignment. When crew members called in, they got busy signals. Part of the problem was too few people to answer calls. The Atlanta-based team rescheduling crews is kept to a few people normally, so there aren’t too many people giving out conflicting instructions.

Now Delta has decided to add more full-time people to that job and train others who could be pulled in from other duty in a severe weather situation. In the future, communications will include mobile phones. Delta has also decided to install hotlines in crew lounges and hub-airport offices to link pilots and flight attendants with crew scheduling officials in the operations center.

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