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Delta sees big ops gains from small improvements in northeast

Delta Air Lines aims to improve its operations in the congested northeastern USA by 10% next year, with a focus on educating controllers and staff on how much small changes can benefit operations.

The improvements target the northeast corridor from Boston to Washington DC where the Atlanta-based carrier faces its most challenging operational environment, said Dave Holtz, senior vice-president of the operations and customer centre at Delta, at the FlightGlobal Data: Corporate Traveler Experience conference in Atlanta on 8 November.

"We have a huge operational effort on-going to get better predictability around the northeast corridor and the delays they're causing us," he says.

The northeast corridor accounts for nearly 28% of Delta's domestic operations in 2018, FlightGlobal schedules data shows. It operates a dual-hub at New York John F Kennedy and New York LaGuardia airports, as well as a focus city at Boston Logan.

While the region is a sizeable chunk of Delta's domestic operation, American Airlines and United Airlines both have greater exposure to the corridor with 34% and 36% of their domestic flights, respectively, touching the area, the data shows.

The New York City airports were among the most delay prone in 2017, US Department of Transportation data shows. Only 72.8% of flights to JFK arrived on-time, 72% to LaGuardia and 67.7% to Newark.

Delta's hometown and mega-hub in Atlanta, by comparison, was among the top five performing airports in the USA last year, with 84.4% of flights arriving on time.

The airline likes to tout its own operational performance, especially the number of days that it does not cancel a mainline flight, with Holtz saying they achieved 242 "perfect" days in 2017 and expect 250-255 such days this year.

This effort to reduce cancellations is part of a multi-year programme he launched in 2011 to improve operations. The focus on fewer cancelled flights was the result of customer feedback that found this was among their top complaints.

The emphasis has paid off, with Delta regularly ranked among the most punctual US airlines with 85.4% of flights arriving on time in 2017, DOT data shows. Holtz and Kristen Shovlin, vice-president of sales operations and development at the carrier, tout this performance as a selling point for customers, especially lucrative corporate contracts at the conference.

"People go out of their way to fly Delta," Cowen analyst Helane Becker told FlightGlobal on the airline's product and operations in October. "That’s a big part of their success."

In the northeast specifically, Delta is working with air traffic controllers, as well as front-line managers at airports in the corridor, to achieve small operational improvements, says Holtz. For example, increasing the arrivals rate at LaGuardia by one or two operations an hour during instrument landings, and getting aircraft off gates on-time can translate into hours-fewer delays – and cancellations – across its system on any given day.

"When we show them what traffic management programmes do to the individual customer and they better understand that, they really are like 'wow, we had no idea that just an arrival rate of one or two difference in one of our key markets makes that much difference to your operations,'" says Holtz.

While Delta aims to reduce cancellations and delays in New York and the northeast by 10% in 2019, Holtz says he will be happy with a 5% improvement because it means these educational efforts are paying off and will continue to reap benefits.

"It's getting them in the habit of just eking out a little more improvement – that's where it's going to come from," he says of air traffic controllers and front-line managers.

Delta's efforts come as the US Federal Aviation Administration continues to work on NextGen improvements to air traffic control, which would shift the system to satellite-based tracking from a ground-based one. There is no timeline for completing these upgrades, which have long been delayed by the annual budgeting process in Washington.

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