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
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
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
"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
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.