United States surpasses 13 million cases of Covid-19

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Passengers line up to check-in on Delta Air Lines flights at Los Angeles International Airport ahead of the Thanksgiving vacation in Los Angeles, Calif., Nov. 25. Patrick T. Fallon / AFP / Getty Images

An increase in Thanksgiving demand is straining Delta’s smaller workforce during a pandemic.

The problem has led Delta to cancel hundreds of flights this week, according to the pilots’ union and the airline.

Delta ultimately canceled nearly one in five flights it was scheduled to operate on Thanksgiving Day and abandoned more than 500 flights in total this week. The airline said it expects its system to return to normal over the weekend.

The union representing the pilots said staff cuts due to the coronavirus pandemic and lower travel “have left a smaller number of qualified and ready-to-fly pilots in fleets experiencing increased demand during these holidays. ”

Delta said Wednesday that a “number of factors have weighed on our ability to timely staff some of our scheduled vacation flights,” but did not specify the issues.

After distributing employee schedules for November last month, Delta added flights to its schedule and asked for volunteers to cover those flights, according to a source familiar with the situation. But when there weren’t enough employees to cover those legs, the airline was forced to cancel some.

The airline declined to comment on this explanation. The Airline Pilots Association’s Delta Master executive board said its pilots have stepped up to take additional flights during the holiday period and receive the incentive to pay bonuses for extra legs.

But when demand increased this week, the heavy cuts to the air system from the coronavirus began to manifest.

Airline passenger traffic is currently only about 40% of what it was last year, according to data from the Transportation Security Administration, and US airlines are making 43% fewer flights.

Delta and other US airlines have responded to the drop in demand by downsizing employees. Hours of work have been reduced, 1,800 pilots have taken early retirement and others have been placed on inactivity or are online for training because the aircraft model they have flown has been retired .

Employee unions and executives at major U.S. airlines have called for a multibillion-dollar extension of a payroll support program that allowed their employees to stay on the job until September. Legislation to do this includes other stimulus measures and is stuck in Washington.

Airlines have seen a relative increase in bookings this week as distant families gather for Thanksgiving dinner and college students are evicted from their university accommodations. More than a million people have passed through TSA checkpoints just four times since the spring – and three of those days were last week.

Travelers also book closer to their departure dates, airlines said, giving them less visibility when planning schedules more than a month in advance.

The union, in a statement, said the timing issue could not be attributed to crews calling in sick from the coronavirus.

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