Inside Delta’s command center the week the coronavirus devastated the airline industry

With the virus attacking airlines from every direction, the carrier cut flight capacity by 40 percent
As the worsening coronavirus outbreak forces airlines to adapt quickly, Delta leaders meet in their command center in Atlanta to manage the constant changes. (Photos by Kevin D. Liles for The Washington Post)

ATLANTA — On the morning when the map of the worldwide coronavirus outbreak on the flat-screen monitors of Delta Air Lines’ command center reached 115,977 confirmed cases in 115 countries, nearly 200 managers gathered in person and by phone to provide real-time updates on how they were responding to the threat confronting their company from every direction.

Face masks: A shipment of 500,000 was on its way but delayed after part of the order was stolen off a supplier’s truck, supply chain manager Scott Boyd said the vendor told him. “By the end of the week, Minneapolis will have more masks in their warehouse,” he said. “The truck was broken into, but they assured me 250,000 are still coming.”

Hand sanitizer and wipes: “We’re trying to buy as much as we can, and I know the domestic needs are going to continue [to] ramp up, but if you can do anything to help us to forecast our needs on these, please forward that to me,” Boyd told the group.

Flight changes: A charter plane in the Middle East would have to be quarantined because of a travel restriction on flights from Germany.

Blankets: In-flight services had decided that morning to pull blankets and pillows from all domestic flights. This was done, an executive explained, “to make sure cleaners are focused on surfaces customers are directly in contact with.”

“They’re not going to be provisioned at all?” asked another manager on the phone.

The same command center room at Delta’s headquarters in Atlanta has been used to manage hurricanes and northeastern snowstorms, triage past infectious outbreaks such as H1N1, and navigate the airline’s response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

But veteran executives experienced with the industry’s frequent disruptions acknowledged the scope of this pandemic — a declaration the World Health Organization made on Wednesday — was unfolding on another level.

“What’s different, probably, is the breadth of this, and not understanding just how big this is going to get,” Bill Lentsch, Delta’s chief customer experience officer, said in an interview Tuesday before the executives’ meeting. “It is coming at us from so many different directions.”

As the week went on, the news just kept getting worse. On Wednesday night, President Trump announced he would restrict travel from most of Europe to the United States for 30 days. Then on Friday, in an extraordinary letter to employees, chief executive Ed Bastian announced a 40 percent cut in capacity — the biggest in Delta’s history, including after 9/11.

There were now more cancellations than new bookings for the next month. “The speed of the demand falloff is unlike anything we’ve seen — and we’ve seen a lot in our business,” he wrote. He added that “the situation is fluid and likely to be getting worse.”

Delta employees managing the company's response to the coronavirus outbreak work at the company's command center in Atlanta on Wednesday.
Delta corporate security specialists Steve Soulimiotis (in glasses) and Kevin Wilhite confer.
In Delta's Mission Control-like Operations and Customer Center, managers work to try to cut the hours-long waiting times on the phones.
TOP: Delta employees managing the company's response to the coronavirus outbreak work at the company's command center in Atlanta on Wednesday. BOTTOM LEFT: Delta corporate security specialists Steve Soulimiotis (in glasses) and Kevin Wilhite confer. BOTTOM RIGHT: In Delta's Mission Control-like Operations and Customer Center, managers work to try to cut the hours-long waiting times on the phones.

Bastian’s letter painted a grim outlook for the entire industry. Demand, he wrote, is prompting an “unprecedented” impact on revenue. The airline is parking up to 300 aircraft, deferring new aircraft deliveries, reducing capital expenditures by at least $2 billion for the year and is in discussions with the White House and Congress about governmental aid. Bastian also said he would be forgoing his salary for six months, following similar moves by executives at United and Southwest.

Even before executives began gathering for the triage meeting Delta has been holding daily since late February, Bastian had taken efforts to fight off the economic impacts of the virus. Earlier Tuesday, he slashed flight schedules by 15 percent, instituted a hiring freeze, introduced voluntary unpaid leave for employees and said the airline would be suspending share repurchases and delaying $500 million in voluntary pension funding.

Meanwhile, American Airlines cut flight capacity, Norwegian Air Shuttle ASA canceled 3,000 flights and the White House and lawmakers looked for common ground on handling the economic response.

The Delta executives gathered in the Incident Briefing Room, as the command center is known, were deploying tactics they’ve honed in past air travel disruptions, all while confronting the growing uncertainty of the rapidly worsening outbreak.

Mark Adams, Delta’s director of emergency management, gave updates on several global travel restrictions, noting Italy’s “total lockdown” and rules in Japan that mandated crew members stay in hotels for their entire layover.

In the vast flight monitoring center next door, a worker could be seen wiping down a computer screen.

Tyna Jenkins, an employee with Clear, a biometric identification technology firm, works at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta.

Barbara Martin, Delta’s staff medical leader, said she had just hired two more nurses to help with employee calls about health questions.

The travel industry has been at the epicenter of the economic turmoil arising from the coronavirus as leisure passengers cancel trips, employers curtail business travel, the conference circuit screeches to a halt and the State Department urges travelers to stay off cruise ships.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said older people and those with underlying medical conditions should “avoid non-essential travel such as long plane trips.”

The International Air Transport Association forecast a $29 billion revenue hit to the industry in February, but that estimate was raised much higher just two weeks later to between $63 billion and $113 billion. The trade group for the world’s airports said Tuesday it expects the economic impact on airports to be “pronounced,” with first-quarter passenger traffic down at least 12 percentage points over prior projections.

After a broader market sell-off Wednesday that pushed the stock market into its first bear market in 11 years, Delta’s stock fell 21 percent on Thursday following the announcement of Trump’s Europe restrictions, but rose 14 percent Friday.

Boeing plans to cash out a $13.8 billion loan meant to cover costs related to the 737 Max jet grounding, a sign some major companies are concerned about the availability of credit moving forward.

“I didn’t think you could just turn the world off, but apparently you can,” said Helane Becker, an airline industry analyst at Cowen, about the sudden declines in air travel. Unlike more regional outbreaks in the past, the scope of covid-19 and media attention it’s been getting makes it more comparable to 9/11, she said. “The fear is: ‘I’m going to go somewhere on my spring break and not be able to get back.’ ”

Richard Aboulafia, an aviation consultant with the Teal Group who called Delta’s management team the industry’s most respected, said “right now things are seizing up — I just don’t think there’s any clarity as to [the] end point.”

A traveler uses a Delta kiosk near empty waiting lines at the Atlanta airport, ranked the world's busiest.
Delta ticket agent Vonda Burts wipes down a ticketing kiosk at the Atlanta airport.
Burts gets a sanitizing wipe.
TOP: A traveler uses a Delta kiosk near empty waiting lines at the Atlanta airport, ranked the world's busiest. BOTTOM LEFT: Delta ticket agent Vonda Burts wipes down a ticketing kiosk at the Atlanta airport. BOTTOM RIGHT: Burts gets a sanitizing wipe.

Delta is addressing the crisis by taking a conservative view, Lentsch said.

“We’re not going to be overly optimistic about how quick this is going to be over,” said Lentsch, who continues to commute each week to Atlanta from Minneapolis, where his family lives. “If it ends quicker, great, but we’re going to be conservative in our planning.”

As an example, he said the airline typically would be thinking about staffing pilots for summer 2021 right now, but it’s not doing that this year.

On the sidewalk outside Lentsch’s building on a drizzly day, a sign with an arrow still pointed visitors to flight attendant interviews, but there had been an announcement of a hiring freeze that morning.

The company also announced a voluntary unpaid leave program, but Lentsch said: “That is something that is real-time being worked [out] over in H.R.”

But while trying to take the long view, the airline is constantly juggling real-time changes as outbreaks pop up in new spots, travel restrictions dramatically change, new regulatory guidance is offered and demand precipitously falls.

The airline offered several different change-fee waivers in early March, for instance, becoming the first of the “Big Three” carriers — Delta, United and American — to waive change fees for tickets purchased earlier for travel during March and April.

Late Wednesday night, it issued another one for Europe and Britain through May 31.

Eric Phillips, who leads airport customer service, said he held an “all-hands” meeting for his team, emphasizing the importance of cleaning and reminding everyone to stay calm.

Travelers wait for bags at the luggage carousel at the Atlanta airport on Wednesday.

“The attitude now has got to be one of resolve, but also we need to be ready. We don’t know what direction this is all going to go, or what the severity or depth of it [is], or how long it will last. We don’t know these things,” he said. “So sticking together and relying on the culture that we have here is important right now.”

In addition to deciding to pull blankets and towels on all domestic flights, Delta instituted new requirements for the lead gate agent and flight attendant to sign off on the cleanliness of the plane, making them responsible if even a few crumbs are on the ground that might suggest to customers the plane hasn’t been cleaned well.

Hot towel service has been temporarily suspended on all flights, in all cabins, and the airline is making changes to credit card transactions in-flight and phasing in more tear-resistant gloves for flight attendants to improve safety measures.

In reservations, former agents who have gone to work for other parts of the airline are being pulled back into the contact center to try to cut the hours-long waiting times on the phones.

Agents slotted for extra training are staffing the phones instead, all while Delta is working to automate more of the refund process. Call volume is so high the airline is asking customers who don’t have to travel in the next 72 hours not to contact them until closer to their trip.

“This is highly fluid — what you and I understand about coronavirus is going to be different a week from now,” said Ranjan Goswami, who leads in-flight services.

Other changes are harder to make quickly, especially for an airline flying approximately 5,500 flights daily before the recent cuts to capacity. Delta is trying to expand the use of fogging machines that use Environmental Protection Agency-registered disinfectant mist — it started using them on inbound transatlantic and Asia flights — but is still working to get enough machines to use on all domestic flights.

Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is the world’s busiest airport, but on Tuesday the security checkpoint advertised less than a 15-minute wait, and the maze of retractable-belt lines stood mostly empty. Few people were lined up at the kiosks and check-in counters.

“It’s one of the easiest trips through security I’ve ever had,” said Brenda, a Delta passenger returning to Georgia from Orlando, who gave only her first name because of privacy concerns. “There weren’t any lines.”

At Delta’s offices, Henry Kuykendall, the airline’s senior vice president of airport operations for the Northeast, who is in town from New York, mentions that the National Guard has just been deployed in the New York suburbs and his team is making sure any employees there have what they need.

He said half of the company’s employees have been around since the airline went through 9/11 and its bankruptcy in 2005 and have worked through crises before.

Delta emerged from bankruptcy in 2007 after cutting costs and terminating its pilots’ pension plan, shifting liabilities to the government, and fending off a takeover bid by US Airways. In 2008, it merged with Northwest Airlines.

“If you go back to 2005, we were two weeks away from payroll. We were trying to meet payroll,” he said.

In 2020, the airline owns its planes rather than leasing them and has a strong credit rating and more diversified revenue streams.

Managing today’s crisis “is about preserving what we’ve done over the last 10 years,” Kuykendall said.

Outside his office, most of a large screen was taken up by the same data from the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University displayed across command center screens that morning.

By midafternoon Tuesday, the total of confirmed cases had risen by nearly 2,000, to 117,734 and two more countries had reported cases.

Aaron Gregg in Washington contributed to this report.

Photo editing by Bronwen Latimer. Design by Clare Ramirez.

Passengers travel through the Atlanta airport on Wednesday. While trying to take the long view, Delta is constantly juggling real-time changes as outbreaks pop up in new spots, travel restrictions change, new regulatory guidance is offered and demand falls.

We noticed you’re blocking ads!

Keep supporting great journalism by turning off your ad blocker. Or purchase a subscription for unlimited access to real news you can count on.
Unblock ads
Questions about why you are seeing this? Contact us