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OM in the News: Delta’s Epic Scheduling Meltdown

May 7, 2017


Delta’s Atlanta hub had dozens of long lines with thousands of passengers waiting for help on Friday, April 7, as thousands of flight cancellations wrecked Spring Break travel plans.

Spring break for hundreds of thousands of Delta Air Lines passengers was disrupted by April thunderstorms in Atlanta that led to an epic OM meltdown, writes The Wall Street Journal (May 4, 2017). At the root of 4,000 canceled flights: telephone busy signals. The biggest problem was that Delta’s 13,000 pilots and 20,000 flight attendants calling in for new assignments couldn’t get through to the people in Atlanta on the front lines of rebuilding the schedule.

Though puzzling in the age of instant digital communications, it turns out employees were dependent on dialing and circuits were overloaded. Computers told gate agents rescheduled crews would be there; customers waited at gates for hours. Then flights would end up canceled for lack of a crew member lost in Delta’s communications fiasco, unaware of the assignment. When crew members called in, they got busy signals since there were too few people to answer calls.

A recovery that should have taken the airline a day or two stretched into the following week. In Atlanta, flights were canceled well after midnight, after airport trains had shut down. That forced dazed vacationers to walk more than a mile through corridors littered with sleeping bodies like a zombie apocalypse. 

One problem was that many positions were short-staffed for holiday crowds because so many Delta employees had themselves taken spring-break vacation. A second problem was trying unsuccessfully to keep more crews together with the same plane all day to minimize disruption. (If a plane, pilots and flight attendants are all scheduled to reshuffle to different flights, a single delay can impact three other flights). A third problem was the undersized crew-tracking team and its phone lines. Delta now plans a system to send crews information about their trips electronically.

Classroom discussion question:

  1. What were the operations issues that Delta failed at?
  2. What OM tools can be used to minimize such breakdowns?
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