Thousands of travelers waited in long lines stretching through the terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Thursday, the messy aftermath of mass flight cancellations due to thunderstorms the day before.
Delta Air Lines cancelled roughly 500 flights Thursday due to planes being out of position, crews being out of place and crew rest requirements after Wednesday’s storms, according to Delta spokesman Michael Thomas.
That came after the airline cancelled about 700 flights Wednesday and diverted more than 60 flights. That’s significantly more than the 300 flight cancellations Delta had expected earlier in the day.
At mid-afternoon Thursday, a ground delay program was causing delays averaging more than five hours long for some arriving flights, according to Federal Aviation Administration flight delay information.
Delta chief operating officer Gil West said in a written statement late Thursday afternoon that “we, as always, learn from these experiences. While we can’t control the weather, we understand the resulting recovery has not been ideal and we apologize for that.”
The severe weather on Wednesday “was unprecedented for Atlanta” and difficult to forecast, he said.
Many travelers were trying to get rebooked on flights back home or to their destinations after spending the night in the airport, while others waited in a long line for baggage assistance.
The combination of a busy spring break week with many families and children traveling and a worse-than expected storm led to major pain for travelers. While some travelers resorted to searching for rental cars to drive home, many vehicles were already taken because of the Masters Tournament in Augusta.
“It’s been a nightmare,” said traveler Greg Hall from Roanoke, Va. who was returning from a business trip to Louisiana.
He said after a flight delay Wednesday, he and his colleagues didn’t get in until after midnight. They got to a hotel in downtown, slept from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m., then returned to the airport early Thursday.
“We had flights this morning, and they were cancelled again this morning,” Hall said. “It’s been kind of a fiasco.... We’re having to rent a car. Just had to bag the airline flight.”
Sarah Madden, a traveler from the Scranton, Pa. area who was stuck in Atlanta overnight, said the flight she and her husband were supposed to take “kept getting delayed over and over again.”
“We were delayed because they didn’t have personnel,” said her husband Matthew Madden. “We got on the flight,” waited a couple of hours, then we taxied out and the storm stopped us.... We taxied out again and the plane’s weather radar malfunctioned.”
Then, the Maddens and other passengers had to get off the plane because of the long tarmac delay. “They were going to get us a new plane. We waited for another two hours, then they said they couldn’t get a pilot... so they just cancelled it.”
Then, at around 12:30 a.m. the Maddens tried to find a hotel or rental car, but “everything was booked,” Matthew Madden said.
He said he then waited in line for Delta customer service in the airport terminal from 1:30 a.m. until 5:30 a.m. while Sarah sat on the floor.
The Maddens had been en route to a vacation in San Antonio, but decided to scrap the vacation since they wouldn’t be able to get on a flight into San Antonio until the night before the morning they have to return home.
They hoped to just get on a flight back home Thursday afternoon. “If they can’t get us home, we’re just going to drive -- but it’s 14 hours,” Matthew Madden said. “I’m not flying Delta again.”
“It’s sad that they wouldn’t try to help us out with a hotel because they said it was just the weather,” Sarah Madden said. “But really it had to do with the staff shortage.”
Delta’s Thomas said the length of the thunder and lightning, with a series of storm cells hitting the airport that led to a roughly five-hour long ground stop, “makes recovering the operation a little more challenging.”
The duration of thunderstorms can be harder to predict than snowstorms, making flight planning more difficult. When lightning is in the area, the airport ramps must be closed, which slows down operations.
Then, the resulting flight cancellations cascade to affect subsequent flights.
“When an airplane doesn’t fly, it means that crews aren’t getting to where they need to be,” Thomas said, along with limits on how long crews can be on duty before a required rest period.
But many travelers were still frustrated with the fallout.
Frequent traveler William Morrill from Gulf Breeze, Fla. called Delta understaffed and unprepared, adding: “So many families with kids on spring break waiting in four hour lines and being told they couldn’t get them out for two more more days and no hotels were being offered... You just can’t do this to people.”
Travel agent “very, very upset with Delta”
Traveler Belinda England from Glasgow, Ky. was returning with family from a vacation in Cancun, and said delays left their flight getting into Hartsfield-Jackson at around 2 a.m. By the time they got through Customs and tried to recheck their baggage, they had missed their connecting flight back home.
“I’m a travel agent, and I’m very, very upset with Delta,” England said. “I know weather is not their fault, but they had ample time to get their act together.” She said the experience would affect her interest in selling Delta flights in the future.
It was “the perfect storm -- and we got caught in the middle of it,” England said. She said the wait for the Delta 800 number was two to three hours -- “You couldn’t get a hold of anyone.”
England and her family are having someone drive from Kentucky to Hartsfield-Jackson to pick them up and then drive them back to Nashville to pick up their car at the airport.
Traveling with her husband, son and daughter’s family, she said it was the first flight for her young granddaughter and friend, ages 11 and 12, “and probably the last” after the experience.
England said she believes the problem is “not only Delta, it’s Atlanta. They just weren’t ready.”