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Apr. 9 – COMMENTARY: Congress and the FAA Bear Part of the Responsibility for the Ongoing Delta Airlines Meltdown

Category: Editorial & Opinion

By Lou Phelps, Publisher

April 9, 2017 - This week’s “meltdown” of Delta Airlines – still going on today - has brought to the forefront both the federal consumer protection issues regarding U.S. airline service, and the need for immediate FAA  intervention in the regulation of airlines’ capacity and granting of routes. 

The U.S. airline system now requires everything to function perfectly. Most flights are booked to capacity, or even over-booked, with the largest U.S. airline companies running their planes completely full. Therefore, when the weather or mechanical problems cause flights to be cancelled, their system has no capacity to accommodate passengers on later flights, or even the next day, and there is no provision to add flights in crisis situations.  

Since Wednesday afternoon, Delta has cancelled more than 3,260 flights; there were still at least 120 reported 

cancellations as of noon on Sunday.

I had a family member caught in the mess this week, trying to get home for a wedding in Savannah. They arrived 30 hours after they were supposed to have landed  in Atlanta from Los Angeles, and they ONLY got home because they were able to get a flight from St. Louis, Missouri to Jacksonville, Florida on Southwest Airlines. 

They had to pay an extra $300 for a one-way seat on Southwest, with no refund available from Delta.  And, they paid $85 for a hotel in St. Louis Thursday night, plus food.    

There is no reimbursement responsibility from Delta, because all the ‘delays,’ were ‘weather related,’ according t

o Delta, even though the storms had long passed, out of the Atlanta area by Wednesday night.

But, what began as several hundred flight cancellations on Wednesday, collapsed their system. 

The FAA and Congress has allowed for the business models and routing structures to be built by many airlines that is doomed to fail. 

And, Congress, over the years, has allowed the airlines to successfully lobby to reduce consumer protections. The airlines no longer provide a hotel or food if they cannot provide service, nor do they book you on another carrier. Yes … they used to do that. 

For my family member, a 30-hour delay began when their Los Angeles non-stop flight to  Atlanta was cancelled,

 set to have departed at 5:45 a.m. Thursday morning.   To re-route her, Delta flew her from LAX to Salt Lake City, and Salt Lake to St. Louis on Thursday, with a theoretical flight on Thursday night flight from St. Louis to Atlanta.

But, that was clearly never going to happen.  Delta had to have known that there was never any hope of that last leg because they already had full flights of Thursday's passengers on that flight.  Instead, it appears that was they were doing was disbursing their passengers around the system, with hopes of squeezing in a few passengers here and the

re on flights, as other passengers did not arrive due to cancelled flights.  So, there she was, stuck in St. Louis, Missouri, with no provision for a hotel or food, and no way to get home.

Delta assumed no responsibility. It was weather related. She was told that there was hope to get her to Atlanta by Friday night. Of course, Delta continued to cancel flights Friday, Saturday and still today, so there is no way of knowing if that ever would have happened ... and she is just one passenger affected. 

Delta has had to cancel 3,265 flights since Wednesday. With at least 220 passengers per flight (many of their aircraft accommodate more), more than 715,000 passengers have been affected over the last four days, people whose vacation and business travel was affected, or ruined, people who missed the cruise ship, missed the business meeting,

 missed the family wedding, or lost their vacation hotel reservation.

According to the Dept. of Transportation, passenger travel between 2014 and 2015 increased 5%, with an additional increase in 2016 (final statistics are still not available.), with Atlanta’s airport remains the U.S’s busiest. Furth

er, April is not even one of the busiest months of the year; it is the 8th busiest travel month of the year. 

Further, the FAA’s route licensing decisions have created a situation where approximately 60% of Delta’s flights go through Atlanta
on an average day. 

National news services are reporting that the Delta crews couldn’t even contact their base at times this week to find out what flight to go to next, whether to go to a hotel, or whether to go home – they couldn’t get through on the phones.

For passengers, as well, the Delta online apps were overwhelmed or malfunctioning; all one got was an ‘error’ message if a customer tried to search for flight alternatives.  IF the phone system answered a call at all, customers were told there was a two-hour wait to have their call answered. I experienced that about 11 pm Thursday night. 

Add to the fiasco, Delta’s corporate communications was slow to acknowledge the level of their problems, or how long it was going to take to right the system. 

As of today, there is now information that some Delta customers may be eligible for refunds if they never reached their destination; the airline appears to realize this is a growing PR disaster, as well.   

But the problems this week are beyond an extraordinary, one-time event due to unusual Southern spring thunderstorms.  This is about a system that is over-burdened, over-scheduled, over-sold, and with insufficient financial protection for the consumer required by the licensing agencies. 

The airline consumer is now trapped by the size and dominance of Delta across the South, a problem created Congress and the FAA.  

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