There was nothing especially extraordinary about the approximately 100 flights that Delta was forced to cancel on June 8 due to severe thunderstorms in the Atlanta area. Indeed, they were among 583 flights within the U.S. or to or from the U.S. that were canceled that day, according to the flight-tracking provider FlightAware. But for Delta, those cancellations were noteworthy because they were the first in the carrier's mainline network since April 29, 43 days earlier.

For years, Delta has been a leader among U.S. airlines when it comes to reliability. Last year, for example, Delta canceled 0.37% of its mainline domestic flights, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS), behind only weather-blessed Hawaiian among the 11 main U.S. airlines. 

Even so, May was a landmark month for the carrier. Along with not recording a single cancellation on its mainline network, Delta enjoyed a stretch between April 29 and May 19 of zero cancellations on its entire domestic network, including flights operated by regional carriers under the Delta Connection brand. Over those 20 days, Delta and its regional partners flew nearly 114,000 Delta-branded flights. 

The Atlanta-based airline wasn't always so reliable. In 2010, Delta canceled 2.03% of its mainline domestic flights, according to the BTS, a rate worse than the 1.76% U.S. industry average for that year. In fact, in all of 2010 Delta didn't have a single cancellation-free day in its mainline domestic network. 

It was around that time, said Erik Snell, Delta's senior vice president of operations, that Delta decided to tackle its reliability problems by targeting cancellation-free days. 

Results have followed. 

By 2014, Delta had 95 days without a mainline cancellation. Last year, that number was 251. Through June 5 of this year Delta had had 127 cancellation-free days in its mainline network, up 27% year over year. 

Cancellations are more frequent for regional flights, both at Delta and at other airlines. In Delta's case, the reason is that when weather cuts into the number of flights that are allowed to depart from a capacity-constrained airport such as LaGuardia in New York, the carrier chooses to cancel flights on smaller regional aircraft first. That way, Snell said, fewer customers are impacted by each cancellation. 

In 2013, Delta began targeting zero-cancellation days throughout its branded network. From zero such days that year, Delta brought the number to 125 in 2018. 

This year, Delta had enjoyed 70 cancellation-free days across its branded network through June 5. Systemwide, cancellations were down 48% year over year, Snell said, amounting to nearly 5,500 fewer canceled flights. 

Snell said that a variety of operational initiatives have driven the improvements. Notably, he said, Delta created task forces and brought in consulting technicians to develop strategies for improving tech operations. As a result, the airline had just 55 maintenance-driven cancellations in 2018, fewer than 1% of the 5,600 such cancellations it had in 2010. 

"One process we've undertaken is making sure that we have the parts in the right place with the right tools with the right skill sets," Snell said.

Also, he said, Delta benefits from its internal staff of 23 meteorologists. Those meteorologists work closely with Delta's strategic planning team during disruptive weather. By coordinating closely, the teams are able to help the airline recover quickly from weather-caused irregularities in operations.

Of course, Delta's focus on cancellation-free days does have the potential to occasionally cause a different sort of headache for travelers. For example, the carrier could delay flights for a long time instead of canceling them in order to extend cancellation-free streaks. 

Snell, though, said that Delta avoids that trap. 

"The guidance to our folks is to make the best decision for our customers," he said.

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