Passengers wait in line to check-in for Delta Air Lines flights at Los Angeles International Airport ahead of Thanksgiving in Los Angeles, California on November 25th. Patrick T. Fallon / AFP / Getty Images

A surge in demand after Thanksgiving weighs on Delta’s smaller workforce from the pandemic era.

The problem resulted in Delta canceling hundreds of flights this week, according to the pilots union and the airline.

Delta ended up canceling almost every fifth flight scheduled to be on Thanksgiving Day, and has suspended more than 500 flights in total this week. The airline expects its system to return to normal over the weekend.

The union that represents the pilots said the downsizing due to the coronavirus pandemic and the drop in travel “has left a smaller pool of skilled and ready-to-fly pilots in the fleets, who are seeing increased demand this holiday.”

Delta said Wednesday that “a number of factors have put pressure on our ability to manned some of our scheduled vacation flights on time,” but without specifying the issues.

After Delta distributed flight schedules to employees in November last month, it added flights to its flight schedule and asked 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 of them.

The airline declined to comment on the statement. The Air Line Pilots Association’s Delta Master Executive Council said its pilots had stepped up to take on additional flights during the holiday season and to receive the incentive to pay bonuses for picking up extra legs.

But as demand increased this week, the major cuts in the air transport system due to the coronavirus became apparent.

According to the Transportation Security Administration, air passenger traffic currently only accounts for about 40% of the previous year’s traffic, and US airlines offer 43% fewer flights.

Delta and other US airlines responded to the decline in demand by reducing the number of employees. Working hours have been reduced, 1,800 pilots have been prematurely retired, others have been inactivated or are waiting for training as the model of the aircraft they flew on has been retired.

Employee unions and executives at major US airlines have called for a billion dollar extension of a payroll support program that will keep employees in the workplace through September. Legislation on this includes other incentives and has stalled in Washington.

Airlines saw a relative surge in bookings this week as aloof families reunited for Thanksgiving dinner and college students booted out of university apartments. More than a million people have passed TSA checkpoints only four times since spring – and three of those days were in the last week.

Travelers also book closer to their departure dates, the airlines say, which gives companies less visibility if they agree flight schedules more than a month in advance.

A union statement said the planning problem was not due to crews sick from the coronavirus.

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