Absent flight attendants thwart Delta operations
By PAUL KAPLAN
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
For hundreds of metro Atlantans, Delta Air Lines will always be synonymous with Christmas Day -- for all the wrong reasons.
Delta had to cancel or delay more than 30 flights Thursday, many of them out of Atlanta, because flight attendants did not show up for work. At least 13 flights out of Atlanta were listed as canceled.
"They're screwing up hundreds of people's vacations," fumed Joel Babbit, an Atlanta public relations executive whose Christmas flight to Puerto Rico was canceled.
Babbit said an airline official told the stranded passengers that not enough flight attendants had arrived to satisfy federal regulations for the Atlanta-to-San Juan run.
Delta personnel at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport were scrambling all day to find alternate flights -- even on other airlines, when necessary -- to move the inconvenienced passengers.
"Right now the flights are moving and we feel that the flight attendant situation is manageable," Delta spokesman Joshua Smith said at midday.
Although it was hard to ignore that the employee no-shows occurred on Christmas Day, Smith said he would not "speculate" about whether the missing flight attendants had chosen their families over the airline's passengers.
"I don't want the flight attendants portrayed as a problem," Smith said. "They are professionals. It's hard to say what the exact reason is."
Smith pointed out that there's been "a terrible case of the flu this season. Hypothetically, we could have an abnormally high number of sickouts."
That would not explain why Delta was the only airline that had major cancellations Thursday, or why much of the problem was in Atlanta, where the flu season has been about average for the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The heightened terror alert was not a factor. "We have no cancellations due to security issues," Smith said.
Stranded passenger Babbit wasn't buying into any theories about the flu.
"I think it's a reflection of the work ethic at Delta," he said.
Delta's incoming chief executive, Gerald Grinstein, was not available for comment, Smith said.
Delta flight attendants are not unionized, so it was not known whether the no-shows were related to a grievance.
In February 2002, Delta's flight attendants voted to remain nonunion. At that time, just 29 percent of them voted to support efforts to unionize by the Association of Flight Attendants.
Delta flight attendant Andrea Taylor, who supports efforts to unionize, said what happened Thursday was not a sickout, but more the result of many flight attendants taking sick leave before the end of the year. Delta flight attendants will receive far fewer sick days in 2004, therefore "any flight attendant who needs a hangnail removed is doing it before 2004," she said.
Smith declined further comment late Thursday.
Delta was able to salvage some flights instead of canceling them by contacting flight attendants who were on call for Christmas Day. Most of them reported to work within two hours, Smith said. The canceled and delayed flights included runs to several major destinations, including Chicago, Charlotte, Orlando, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Mexico City and San Juan.
Passengers on at least one canceled international flight had to stay overnight in Atlanta, but most passengers on other flights were rerouted within 45 minutes, Smith said.
Two flights were canceled for mechanical reasons, Smith said. Delta was working to press planes into duty that otherwise would have had Christmas Day off in order to accommodate passengers from those flights, he said.
Staff writer Mary Lou Pickel contributed to this article.