As July 4th travelers pack Atlanta’s airport, Delta pilots voice frustrations

Off-duty pilots for Delta Air Lines picket at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport Thursday. (Emil Moffatt/WABE News)

Charles Hall was getting ready to board a flight to Baton Rouge Thursday at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. He says he tries to get there as early as possible, because it’s one of the things he can control.

“You know, if you get here and planes are canceled or something like that—yeah, you’re frustrated,  but [there’s] nothing you can do,” Hall said.

The Fourth of July holiday is normally one of the busiest travel periods of the year. And in a summer that has already seen thousands of flight cancellations and delays, the next few days could make for some frustrated flyers.

On Wednesday the website reported nearly 6,000 delays across the U.S. and more than 600 cancellations. 

‘Once in a lifetime’

Laurie Garrow is a professor at Georgia Tech who studies the airline industry. She says the root of all these headaches goes back to the start of the pandemic, when there was a dramatic fall in air travel.

“This is literally a once-in-a-lifetime event for the airline industry,” said Garrow. “Never before has the airline industry seen such a dramatic and sustained drop in demand. We saw a dramatic drop in demand after 9/11 for instance, but the recovery was very quick.”

In 2020, airlines furloughed or offered early retirement to pilots, and parked airplanes too. 

Then the vaccines came.

“And it was this whiplash effect,” Garrow said. “Demand is back and it is back strong. And you simply can’t rehire pilots or re-activate all those aircraft instantaneously.”

That shortage of pilots is resulting in lots of overtime for those who fly for Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines. It’s a point of frustration for hundreds of off-duty pilots who held signs and marched silently Thursday outside Delta’s terminal.

Captain Jason Ambrosi is head of the pilot’s union. He says they haven’t had a raise in more than three years and have been shouldering the load for Delta since travel demand ramped back up.

Jason Ambrosi
Captain Jason Ambrosi leads the union which represents pilots for Delta Air Lines (Emil Moffatt/WABE)

“They essentially have been relying on pilots to continuously pick up all these extra days of flying,” Ambrosi said.

Ambrosi says pilots are racking up “record amounts” of overtime hours.

“It’s becoming a fatigue issue because they’re just doing it month in and month out,” Ambrosi continued. “At some point, Delta needs to schedule responsibly to ensure that this doesn’t continue.”

Ambrosi says the two sides are set to return to the bargaining table in July.

A spokesperson for Delta says its goal is to give pilots an industry-leading contract while still be able to meet he financial challenges it faces.