Delta Airlines pilots picketed outside airports across the country on Thursday as hundreds of flights were delayed and canceled ahead of the Fourth of July weekend.
The off-duty pilots protested for higher wages and more time off as a crushing demand for air travel threatened to muddle up holiday plans.
Passengers were faced with 3,165 delays and 440 cancellations in the US as of 1 pm on Thursday, according to FlightAware.com.
Delta alone suffered 307 delays and 89 cancellations, ranking second among US airlines in total cancellations and delays.
Outside JFK Airport, Delta pilots complained about the lack of employees due to cuts amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
With Americans now returning to the air, pilots are putting in extra time.
“We basically shut the airline industry down for a couple of years. When I was out here flying, there were not a whole lot of passengers out here flying,” Delta pilot David Adler explained. “Now all of a sudden we’re basically tooling back up again, so it takes a little bit of time to go ahead and do that.”
Picketing pilots were out in several major airports, including Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta, where Delta has its headquarters.
The demonstrators — who are in the middle of contract negotiations — want higher wages, more time off, and more personnel to offset the pain of increased travel demand, the Air Line Pilots Association said in a statement.
“Due to our lack of staffing, pilots are flying more and more, more than they’re used to flying,” Adler said. “It affects flight delays and cancellations because when pilots get rerouted and there’s no extra pilots, it’s more difficult to get the airline back on time.”
Delta has publicly acknowledged the staffing issue. In May, the airline proactively canceled hundreds of flights scheduled between July 1 and Aug. 7, The Points Guy reported.
On Tuesday the company also offered to let customers scheduled to travel between July 1 and July 4 to rebook their trip for any day before July 8, at no cost.
Former airline executive Robert Mann advised flyers to be prepared for delays and cancellations — especially when the weather is bad or when they’re planning to fly late.
“If it’s a bad weather day or if it’s kind of late in the day, because airlines tend to become later and later, or do more canceling towards the end of the day, you better have a good understanding of what your alternatives might be, whether it’s other flights on that, that day, or whether it’s other flights on other airlines,” he said.
Mann said the Fourth of July and the summer holidays have always presented particular challenges for the industry — but that the number of long-scheduled flights canceled had previously been “unimaginable.”
“The worst case of the problem I’ve ever seen is when Jet Blue canceled like 10%, literally 10% of its summer schedule,” Mann said.
“I’ve just never seen anything that big. 1% is also a big problem. When you look at the scale of airline operations, 10% is an unimaginable problem.”
At the same time, “leisure demand” is up 35 to 40% compared to last July, airline analyst Helane Becker said.
“I think the best thing to say is that patience is a virtue even though none of us want to be patient,” said Becker. “If you can take an early flight that’s really helpful too.”