Delta had worst cancelation rate among US airlines in May

 A Delta plane sits at the International Terminal at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in March 2020. (photo credit: CURTIS COMPTON/ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION/TNS)
A Delta plane sits at the International Terminal at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in March 2020.
(photo credit: CURTIS COMPTON/ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION/TNS)

Delta Air Lines had the most cancelations of any US airline in May, according to the latest federal data.

Out of all flights on Delta and Delta Connection in May, 2.7% were canceled, which was the highest rate among US airlines, according to Wednesday's Air Travel Consumer Report issued by the US Department of Transportation.

That's a sharp spike in cancelations compared to Delta's usual performance with less than 0.7% of flights canceled, as was the case last year and in 2019 before the pandemic.

Can't take the heat

As temperatures have warmed, demand has also grown with pandemic-weary travelers wanting to return to the skies. But the demand surge has been hampered by operational challenges across the airline industry.

Delta Air Lines Airbus A319 plane on the tarmac at LAX in Los Angeles (credit: REUTERS/LUCY NICHOLSON)Delta Air Lines Airbus A319 plane on the tarmac at LAX in Los Angeles (credit: REUTERS/LUCY NICHOLSON)

Delta and Delta Connection canceled 3,398 flights in May. The month included the busy and chaotic Memorial Day travel weekend when many vacationers set off for their first trips of the summer. Hundreds of thousands of people had their plans disrupted by flight cancelations.

The uncharacteristically poor performance in May and lingering problems this summer were so concerning that Delta CEO Ed Bastian said last week the airline will halt flight growth for the rest of the year in an effort to keep the flight schedule manageable and reduce flight cancelations.

"I'd like to sincerely apologize to those who have been impacted by cancelations, delays, and long wait times over the last two months," Bastian said last week, adding that "restoring operational excellence is our top priority." He said Delta's July performance has been significantly better so far, with far fewer cancelations.

"By ensuring capacity does not outstrip our resources and working through our training pipeline, we'll continue to further improve our operational integrity," Bastian said. Delta has hired 18,000 employees in the last year and a half, "you don't step into these jobs and you learn it overnight. There's a significant learning factor that we're also going through," he said.

What's at stake here?

There's a lot at stake: If Delta doesn't restore its reputation for running a quality operation, it risks losing the millions of customers it has managed to attract over the years because it was known for reliable flight schedules.

Competing airlines, in fact, canceled fewer flights than Delta in May.

Chicago-based United Airlines and its partners canceled 2,674 flights in the month, a 2.4% cancelation rate. Fort Worth, Texas-based American Airlines and its partners canceled 3,052 flights, a 2% cancelation rate.

Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, the second-largest carrier at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, canceled 809 flights in May, a 0.7% cancelation rate.

Delta and Delta Connection still managed to maintain relatively-good on-time performance in May, ranking second among US airlines with 80.7% on-time arrivals, behind Hawaiian Airlines with 86% on-time arrivals. However, Delta and other airlines had multiple tarmac delays that lasted more than three hours, according to federal data.

Nearly 24% of the complaints to the federal government about airlines in May concerned cancelations, delays and other flight schedule disruptions. Another 30.5% of complaints were about refunds.

The DOT noted Wednesday that airlines are required to have a customer service plan on how they will mitigate inconveniences due to flight cancelations and misconnections, and the agency said it "monitors airlines' actions and reviews complaints that it receives against airlines to ensure that consumers' rights are not violated."