Delta: Status Quo Is Just Fine, Thank You

Our air traffic control system is riddled with challenges: 1) the system is antiquated, our controllers do heroic work using WWII-era radar and paper strips; 2) a third of our controllers are currently eligible for retirement, and the training/recruitment pipeline is weak; yet 3) the number of flyers on U.S. carriers has climbed for the sixth consecutive year, and it’s expected to continue rising, putting our air traffic control system under extraordinary stress.

In the face of these challenges, Delta continues to be in denial about the imminent crisis facing our nation’s air traffic control operations and they are fighting against the reforms that will enhance safety, deliver modernization and improve flight experiences for passengers and crews.  The reason is simple: Delta alone is benefiting from the status quo and doesn’t want to spend the money to upgrade its aging fleet.

“Delta makes no secret about its strategy of investing in select older aircraft in lieu of spending money on comparable newer ones. Among the big four U.S. carriers (counting American and US Airways as one), Delta has the highest average mainline fleet age, at 17.3 years, the Aviation Week Intelligence Network (AWIN) Commercial Fleets database shows. No other carrier’s fleet averages above 14 years.” (Delta Balancing Older Aircraft, Maintenance Costs. Aviation Week. 1-22-14.)

While defending NextGen, Delta ignores multiple independent findings that mismanagement, congressional politics and budget impasses are standing in the way of its ability to achieve its desired outcomes.

“The original vision for the Next Generation Air Transportation System is not what is being implemented today, and the Federal Aviation Administration should “reset expectations” for the program meant to modernize and transform the national airspace.” (FAA Should ‘Reset Expectations’ for Next Generation Air Transportation System.  National Academy of Sciences News. 5-1-15)

“NextGen-critical programs remain over budget and behind schedule due to overambitious plans, unresolved requirements, software development problems, ineffective contract management, and unreliable cost and schedule estimates.” (FAA Reforms Have Not Achieved Expected Cost, Efficiency and Modernization. DOT OIG Report1-15-16)

Delta’s suggestion that its operational performance is proof that today’s model is not broken is actually proof that its fortress hub where it is the dominant carrier is simply less congested. From a competitive perspective, Delta benefits when all other carriers—and millions of customers–face delays in their hubs. American Airlines CEO Doug Parker made clear that Delta has “a different agenda” from the major airlines that do support ATC reform. From a Bloomberg article:

“Atlanta, Delta’s largest hub, isn’t as congested or delay-prone as other airports, so the airline may be satisfied with the current system, Parker said. Some of the most delay-plagued airports are in the Northeast, at Philadelphia International, Newark Liberty International in New Jersey and LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy International in New York.

“’Why is it that Delta believes something different that no other airline believes?’ Parker said. ‘I don’t think it’s because they have different facts. I think it’s because they have a different agenda. What’s best for Delta is for the rest of us to live in an environment that is relatively more harmful to us than to them.’”

We think that Delta CEO Richard Anderson had it right three years ago when he described the current state of our air traffic control systems in an interview with CEO Wire.

“The air traffic control system is the same air traffic control system we had 30 years ago.” (“Delta Air Lines – CEO Interview,” CEO Wire, 5/23/13)

Later that same day advocated for modern skies and air traffic control reform in an interview with Charlie Rose.

“We’ve got to have a modernized air traffic control system.” (“Charlie Rose Talks to Delta CEO Richard Anderson,” Bloomberg Business, 5/23/13)