Skift Take

Delta is taking a big chance with a forward-looking perspective by re-engaging pilots. Whether it's doing the right thing, or setting itself up for failure, will become much more clear in the months ahead.

After being sidelined for nearly a year, every one of Delta’s 1,713 pilots is being returned to active service after the global pandemic brought flying to a screeching halt during this week last March.

The pilots, all of whom the Atlanta-based airline kept on the payroll with minimum pay, remained on the airline’s no-fly list throughout the pandemic, based on an agreement between Delta and the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) to protect the pilots from being furloughed.

In an internal document reviewed this week by Skift, the company announced to its employees in February that it would be returning all of its pilots to active status in anticipation of a surge in travel in 2022, and a return to 2019 levels in 2023.

Delta, like most of its rivals, still predicts a full recovery to 2019 levels of travel and revenue won’t occur this year. But the airline says it is recalling these pilots in order to position itself to take advantage of the return in demand whenever it occurs. The company declined to specify details on its near-term schedule and capacity.

The rollout in returning such a substantial number of pilots began in January with 400 open slots being filled, before Delta opened up the remaining pilot bids, effectively bringing back all 1,700 plus of its affected pilots to active status, a Delta spokesperson said. Previously, Delta CEO Ed Bastian said the airline will be smaller in the near term.

“This is an extension of earlier efforts to move 400 pilots from inactive status to active and it means all pilots are expected to be back to active status this fall. This move is to help Delta prepare for growth in future flying, as we look to anticipated customer demand in 2022 and 2023,” said Morgan Durrant, a Delta spokesperson.

The extra time gives the airline flexibility in managing the complex and time-consuming process of properly retraining each of the pilots returning to active flying status.

“ALPA has maintained throughout the pandemic that the pilots, who are career-long stakeholders in Delta Air Lines, are committed to doing our part to return Delta to where we were a year ago — the top of the industry,” said First Officer Chris Riggins, communications chairman for the Delta Master Executive Council (DMEC) arm of ALPA, representing Delta pilots.

“To ensure that, we worked to find and implement mutually agreeable solutions to the challenges this pandemic presented to our company. We’re ready to welcome back those pilots who have been sidelined during Covid, and look forward to seeing them in flight deck soon,” he said.

The affected pilots were given an opportunity to basically be available to Delta and come back when the demand was there, Riggins said.

“And they’re projected to be done with their training sometime in October,” Riggins said.

Although he admits it’s a tall order with limited simulators, and for pilots who’ve been displaced from the aircraft they flew before, Riggins is confident every pilot will be trained by October.

“It’s daunting for an airline like Delta that has multiple fleet types. You have to carefully juggle all those balls to make sure that you keep those assets moving forward and producing for you, [and] it’s easier to deal with one type [aircraft],” Riggins said.

Over the course of the pandemic, 1,806 pilots volunteered for the company’s early retirement program. Of those, 1,589 have retired from Delta as of January 1, and the rest will retire within the next couple months, said Riggins.

He foresees more pilots retiring soon as they reach their mandatory retirement age, opening the way for new hires.

“We want to see them do well,” he added, “so it behooves us to help them position themselves to make that happen.”

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Tags: airline, airline pilots, ALPA, coronavirus recovery, delta

Photo credit: Delta pilots pictured here in flight deck pre-pandemic during a ferry flight from New York JFK to Orlando. ©Rank Studios / Delta Air Lines

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