United incident eclipses Delta's flight chaos, crew members say

Commentary

As outrage continues to simmer over United Airlines’ (UAL) violent removal of a passenger from an overbooked flight, some Delta Air Lines (DAL) crew members have a unique vantage point: They worry the incident is overshadowing their company’s recent system failure.

Some believe the United passenger controversy has shifted the spotlight from what they see as their company’s poor handling of last week’s disruption, when 4,000 Delta flights were cancelled after fierce storms rocked the airline’s Atlanta hub. 

As a Delta traveler, I suffered and plodded through some of the interminable delays, and I spoke with a handful of Delta staffers after the worst of the cancellations had subsided.

“I don’t wish anybody harm,” one New York-based Delta flight attendant said of the United incident, “but it took us off of the front page.”

A number of flight attendants, still palpably angry with Delta for last week’s disarray, worried that with diminished social media scrutiny, executives would be less inclined to correct internal problems, many of which hindered a speedier resolution of the crisis.

“Our CEO only sent something around to employees yesterday,” another said during my Tuesday flight’s beverage service, referring to Ed Bastian, the airline’s top executive. She detailed being stranded in Los Angeles for nine hours last week with no accommodations. “I still don’t feel like any of my concerns have been addressed.”

She ultimately found a place to stay without the help of a manager.

Predictably, it did not take much digging to find that festering frustration extended beyond members of my flight crew. One longtime flight attendant, Carolann Foulds, asked in a Facebook comment: “How is this accepted as normal?”

“We are literally lost in the system,” a Georgia-based Delta flight attendant posted on Facebook. He described himself as “furious” at the airline.

Delta, in its first quarter earnings report Wednesday, said last week’s mess would cost it $125 million in pretax income.

Like thousands of other travelers last week, my series of complications began last Friday evening, when I was slated to fly out from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. The Delta terminal looked something like post-apocalyptic transportation bedlam. Would-be spring breakers were splayed across tandem chairs. Bars were conspicuously packed at 10 p.m. Travelers paced robotically on moving walkways, both eminently bored and frustrated, shuffling back and forth until they collapsed into seats.

My 9 p.m. flight to Los Angeles was hit with one delay, then a second, then a third, until Delta Flight 427 finally departed around midnight. Passengers deplaned at 3 a.m. California time.

I had known then that a series of mid-week southern storms led to a cascade of breakdowns throughout the Delta system. The weather forced a ground-stop at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, which then snowballed into out-of-position Delta planes and displaced flight crews, leaving a whole heap of very stranded Delta customers.

The cancellations and delays sparked a serious public relations crisis for one of the largest domestic carriers.

But in a few short days, the commercial aviation world turned upside down. That’s why some Delta employees worry that the airline’s top brass will get off scot-free after last week’s woes.

There’s only a finite amount of airline outrage -- short attention spans or 140-character limits may be to blame -- and footage from United Express Flight 3411 has now placed Delta’s rival in the cross-hairs of the internet’s ire.

A video of a shaken, bloodied passenger -- a doctor named David Dao -- is far more shocking than a pack of travelers sitting on an airport floor, griping about their canceled flight to Fort Lauderdale. Travelers impacted by Delta’s chaos can brush off and rebound from a mere flight delay; passengers on 3411 may have to contend with the memory of Dao’s bleeding face and mouth for some time to come.

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In a video posted online, United Airlines passenger David Dao is shown with a bloody face after he was forced off an overbooked flight on Sun., April 9, 2017, by officers at Chicago O'Hare airport.

Delta’s PR dilemma appears quaint in scale when contrasted with United’s tsunami of a problem. On Tuesday afternoon, as I returned to New York, writing this from a Delta economy seat, the harsh public glare -- for now -- was off of the airline. 

There was no open discussion of the “elephant in the air” -- the United video -- but as flight attendants distributed complimentary meals to travelers (a new offering on Delta’s transcontinental flights, received by many passengers as a welcome surprise), the plane’s mood was noticeably more jovial than the atmosphere on the Friday flight.

Prodded along by an endless news cycle, and by the convenient timing of another airline’s dire image problem, the country seems to have moved on from last week’s Delta disruption. It appears that Delta crew members, though, have not forgotten.