Delta Air Lines says rising levels of COVID-19 infections amongst its pilots was partly to blame for a Thanksgiving meltdown that led to the airline cancelling nearly 600 flights at short notice over just four days last weekend. In an internal memo, Delta’s chief of operations John Laughter told pilots the airline had set up a task force in an attempt to avoid a repeat over the rapidly approaching Christmas period.
Captain Ryan Schnitzler, chairman of the Delta branch of the ALPA pilots union confirmed that more pilots were being infected with COVID-19 and claimed sickness levels had increased by 113 per cent in November. Captain Schnitzler, however, warned Delta could be at fault for the surge in infections amongst pilots.
“I suspect that one potential cause (of rising infections) was the domestic rotations constructed in October and earlier,” Capt Schnitzler said in an emailed note to colleagues. “As you may recall, we saw split rotations with up to five, six and even seven cockpit crew changes per trip, which is an exponentially better way to spread the virus if one of those pilots were infected.”
There was also a warning that COVID-19 was spreading throughout Delta’s training center but discussions on ways to mitigate the danger were still a work in progress. “For now, I suggest always wearing your mask, even in the flight deck and simulator,” the memo continued.
Unlike flight attendants and passengers sat in the aircraft cabin, pilots are only encouraged to wear a face mask when sat in the flight deck. Many pilots believe wearing a face mask while at the controls poses a safety risk even greater than that of becoming infected COVID-19 and choose not to wear a mask.
Thankfully, Capt Schnitzler says the union raised the issue of pilot swaps with Delta who agreed to end the practice. If the domestic scheduling was the root cause of the infections it could, however, take weeks for any improvement to be seen.
Increasing infection rates weren’t the only reason for Delta’s Thanksgiving cancellation fiasco, however. As passengers started to book flights ahead of the holidays, Delta added flights at short notice to match the increase in demand.
Unfortunately, Capt Schnitzler claims mismanagement over pilot training meant that while there are more than enough pilots on Delta’s payroll to operate but not enough have received the necessary training to operate Delta’s planned schedule.
Delta pilots recently voted to approve an agreement that prevented 1,700 pilots from being involuntarily furloughed. Those pilots at risk of furlough will receive partial pay, while other pilots will see a small drop in the number of guaranteed paid hours that they work each month.
The deal will push the need for pilot furloughs into 2022, at which point there’s hope that travel demand will have rebounded sufficiently enough to avoid redundancies altogether.
TOTP: @xJonNYC via Twitter
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.