MIAMI — More than 80,000 employees at Delta Air Lines come together to perform one of the most highly choreographed ballets everyday. From Atlanta to Tokyo, each performer is tasked with a job to get more than half a million customers to their destinations safely, on-time, and with their luggage on more than 5,000 flights everyday.
If it sounds easy, it isn’t. Delta is constantly faced with issues beyond its control, ranging from air traffic control strikes to the ever changing weather conditions. Regardless of the road blocks it faces, Delta flies more than 165 million customers to their destinations every year.
Last week, Delta provided a rare glimpse inside its award winning global operation to a handful of its digital media influencers. Additionally, we were invited to join Delta in celebrating its rich history with the opening of the newly-renovated Delta Flight Musem on its 85th anniversary.
The #InsideDelta experience all started with a short flight to Atlanta on Sunday, June 15. We were seated in Delta’s First Class cabin on both a MD-88 from New York and one of Delta’s new Boeing 717s from Houston. The MD-88 offered Wi-Fi (DL is powered by GoGo) while the 717 offered a relatively new interior with Wi-Fi, and power ports. Since both of our flights were under 700 miles, a snack basket with fruit, candy bars, and Delta’s world-famous Biscoff Cookies was offered to passengers in first class.
Once we arrived at the gate in Atlanta, a Delta representative met us to escort us down to the ramp where a Porsche Cayenne was waiting to take us to Renaissance’s Atlanta Concourse Hotel. The Porsche service is provided randomly to Delta’s Diamond Medallions and Delta’s other High-Valued Customers (HVC) with tight connections at several of its hubs.
After navigating around the large aluminum hulks on the active taxiways, we arrived at the hotel, and later in the evening, a small dinner was held in one of the hotel’s suites to allow us to meet the company’s corporate communication staff while watching more than one hundred Delta planes take off and land.
This was a good reminder on what it was like to be a passenger before we went inside the airline. Most of what we would see over the next two days is not seen by passengers.
The Heart of Delta Air Lines
On Monday morning, we attended Delta’s 9AM operation meeting which is held Monday through Friday.
Other operation meetings are held everyday at 7:30AM and 7:30PM (and as needed) to help wake up and put the airline to bed. During the 20-45 minute meeting, the duty director receive updates from departments ranging from maintenance to meteorology and even revenue management. Additionally, Delta’s regional airlines attend the meeting by calling in to make sure they are on the same page as Delta’s mainline operations.
At this particular meeting, they discussed where the spare aircraft were located around the system, which aircraft were out of service, the flight attendant and pilot staffing issues due to thunderstorms that caused many delays and diversions, and how the airline recuperated from weather issues over the weekend. Luckily, Delta had a relatively high number of spare aircraft available to assist with some of the aircraft that were taken out of service due to lighting strikes and other maintenance issues.
Meteorologists explained that weather issues would effect Midwest and Pacific operations later in the week, and there was also some concern for delays and/or cancellations as labor groups in Italy were planning to strike later in the week.
It was already a bumpy start to the week, and it was only Monday morning. Though, spirits were high as many jokes about the World Cup were brought up.
Outside the conference room where the meeting was held lies Delta’s “nerve center”; welcome to Delta’s Operations Control Center (OCC). More than 600 employees come together daily to keep the carrier’s operations running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Employees are responsible for the coordinating Delta’s approximately 750 mainline aircraft and 2,000 daily mainline flights. Flight dispatch, operations management, maintenance control, load control, equipment routing, reservations control, crew tracking, revenue management, meteorology, and other departments all work together to coordinate the movement of more approximately 800 mainline aircraft and more than 2,000 daily flights.
In order to help complete these tasks, Delta uses a program called Bridge.
The program allows employees to view the details on all flights down to its high value customers which are a part of Delta 360. One of the operation center employees showed us how this program worked. We were able to see how many unaccompanied minors, handicapped, and elites were on the flight, and to our surprise, they explained that the number of these special customers actually effect flight cancellations.
The Best View
Delta’s OCC is located just a few thousand feet from the world’s busiest airport where Delta operates more than 1,000 daily departures and 1,000 arrivals to more than 150 cities. Many of the flights arrive during the 9AM, 5PM, and 7PM primary banks, but there are 11 other traffic banks. It’s safe to say that the airport almost never sleeps.
Seated high above concourses A, B, and D in a tower, dozens of employees help control aircraft movements in the alleyways, liaison’s with the FAA, assign aircraft to gates, and ground movements (baggage loading and unloading, aircraft maintenance, crew issues, catering, and many other jobs).
Like those that work in the OCC, a lot of coordination is needed to run a smooth operation, especially when flights are delayed due to crew, mechanical, or weather issues. Air traffic control and Delta’s ramp controllers are constantly juggling whatever is thrown there way.
They will assist flight crews should they encounter an issue with the aircraft. The ramp controllers will also assist with controlling baggage loading and unloading, catering, maintenance, and aircraft pushing back and taxing in the alleyways they are responsible for.
Delta has operations on all six concourses at ATL. Concourses A, B, C North, and D North are exclusively Delta’s. Concourses E and F are used for international flights for both Delta and other international carriers, but Delta is approximately 98% of the traffic at these two concourses.
Even through there are 150 gates to park aircraft, it is still a struggle. With flights being delayed for different reasons, the gate keepers are always busy making sure that flights will not overlap at a gate.
There two runways on the north side of the airport and three on the south side. If the airport is only using four of its four runways, it can only handle 92 departures and arrivals per hour, but if its fifth runway (the most south runway) is being used, it can handle a maximum of 126 departures and arrivals per hour. However, there can be very long taxi times. If a flight arrives on the most south runway, taxi times can take approximately 20 minutes; this can be good flights that arrive well ahead of their scheduled arrival time. For the four runways closer to the concourses, taxi times take approximately 10-12 minutes.
To reduce taxi times and congestion, Delta and ATL have had to be innovative. It introduced a horseshoe taxiway at the edge of the runways on the north side which does not require planes to cross the runway. Since it has shown taxi times decrease by several minutes, the airport is currently building one on the south side of the airport.
Bags, Bags, and More Bags
Beneath the operations towers and all of the concourses lies 20 miles of belts that transport 130,000 to 140,000 pieces of luggage every day.
Workers must constantly monitor the baggage system as pileups happen quite frequently, and they can cause workers to lose precious time. The last baggage cart heads to the aircraft at t minus 25 minutes until departure.
Many passengers traveling through ATL are just connecting through the airport, and quite often, ground workers only have 30 to 45 minutes to get passengers baggage from one aircraft to the next.
If time permits, workers will have the baggage system sort connecting bags for the next flight, but quite frequently, workers will have to drive the luggage to the next flight if the connection time is too short.
For every 1,000 bags that pass through Delta’s baggage system, the goal is that only five or less miss connect. On this particular day, the average of miss connecting baggage was only two bags per 1,000.
Maintaining A Fleet Of Over 700 Aircraft
In order for Delta to conduct its more than 2,000 mainline flights every day, the planes must be in working order, and a few thousand people work around the clock to make sure all of Delta’s 754 aircraft are safe to fly passengers.
If you have ever flown through Atlanta and saw a sign that says “Fly Delta Jets” you have seen Delta’s TechOps facility. It takes up 63 acres at ATL, and they can do everything from painting a plane to overhauling an aircraft.
Delta has several other maintenance facilities throughout its system, but its Atlanta base is the largest. There are a total of 12 hanger bays at the facility. Nine are used for routine maintenance, and three are used to paint aircraft.
Besides routine maintenance, the airline also completes heavy C checks which is basically when mechanics check every millimeter of the aircraft every few years. Today, N395DN, one of Delta’s 16 year old Boeing 737-800s, was in for a C check.
Right next to N395DN was Delta’s newest Boeing 737-900ER. Mechanics were getting the aircraft ready to enter service by installing gogo in-flight Wi-Fi.
Delta TechOps is a division of Delta Air Lines which makes it a business. TechOps does do other work for other airlines at its hangars, and during our visit, we saw a few of their clients aircraft being worked on.
If you’re taxing by the hangars, you can easily take a peek inside, but behind the large walls are tons of shops that fix anything from landing gear to engines.
Delta completes almost all of its engine work at its engine shop in Atlanta. More than 100 employees work in the shop, and many have spent years working on the same engine type at this facility. They complete overhauls that can cost up to $2.5 million, fix fan blades, and correct any other malfunctions 24/7.
After mechanics overhaul an engine, the engines are required to be tested in one of the engine test cells on property. The cells are gigantic, and they are enclosed in walks that are two feet thick to help decrease the sound.
Engines are tested at sea level and an average temperature of 59 degrees, and they can spend anywhere from 14-22 hours in a test cell. During the time, the engines consume approximately 2,200 gallons of fuel per hour when they are running. From a control room, the engine’s performance is monitored, and the data is sent back to the engine manufacturer.
Stay tuned for a more in-depth story on Delta’s TechOps facility.
The cabin lights go out. Smoke is filling the cabin, and the flight attendants begin commanding:
“Bend over, stay down, stay seated!”
“Bend over, stay down, stay seated!”
“Evacuate. Leave everything behind!”
“Bad exit go foreword!”
Passengers slide down
“Move away from the aircraft!”
The phrases above are just a few things you never want to hear come out of your flight attendant’s mouth because it usually means an emergency evacuation is taking place. While touring Delta’s InFlight Training Center, we heard these phrases twice as we evacuated from two cabin trainers.
Even though this was just a practice evacuation, the flight attendants had serious faces on, and it felt like something was going wrong. While it is widely known that flight attendants are on-board for our safety, touring the training center really enforces how many safety procedures flight attendants have to learn.
All new flight attendants are trained at Delta’s Atlanta Inflight Training Center, but some of the flight attendants need their yearly recurrent training visit the Salt Lake City location.
New flight attendants undergo a seven and a half week training course that can last from eight to fourteen hours per day six days a week. They’ll learn how to operate 17 doors, how to use the emergency equipment, first aid, emergency evacuation procedures, water landing procedures, and customer service. Though, it’s clear that customer service training is dead last on what flight attendants have to learn.
Safety is Delta’s number one priority. Even though it is highly unlikely many of the flight attendants will be in an emergency situation, like a crash landing flight attendants must always be prepared for the unexpected.
This year, it was statistically harder to be accepted into the Delta Air Lines flight attendant program than to be admitted into Harvard University. Currently, Delta has more than 20,000 flight attendants around the world, and when it announced it was hiring approximately 1,500 flight attendants, more than 100,000 applied for the job.
During our visit, we had the opportunity to visit with Delta’s social media team. Located in a medium sized room on the headquarters campus, a small team works on promoting Delta on various social media channels, and they have developed ways to get in touch with customers through social media as well.
There are two parts to the social media team; meet marketing and customer service.
The marketing side will put together the marketing Tweets promoting holidays, special events, and the different things that are going on at Delta. It also just launched a new program in partnership with LinkedIn known as innovation class. This allows customers to apply for an opportunity to take a flight with a person that is at the top of their industry to get advice on how they can grow and/or improve their businesses.
On the customer service side, Delta Air Lines became the first airline to start using social media as a way to reach out to its customers. They are able to do this on both Facebook and Twitter. This was revolutionary when they started, and it turned out to be successful. Delta’s social media presence has been growing, and now it can Tweet customers in several different languages.
If you ever Tweet Delta, they’re waiting to assist you 24/7.
Time To Depart
After attending the grand opening of Delta’s newly renovated Delta Flight Museum and trying out the Boeing 777-200LR simulator, it was time to catch my flight back to Houston.
After the #InsideDelta experience, traveling seemed like a bit of a different experience as I was now a lot more familiar with all of the things that were happening. I knew the baggage belts my suitcase would end up traveling on to get to the MD-88 that was waiting to take me back home. I also now knew how heavy the MD-88 cabin doors are to open and how much safety training my flight attendants have gone through.