Delta Blames Seven-Hour Flight Delay On "Decades-Old Radar And Analog Air Traffic Control System"

Delta customer and Consumerist reader Rebekah emailed Delta over concerns about recent and extreme airline delays, threatening to cancel her Delta American Express and taking her miles with her. We’ll let it and the Delta Customer Care reply speak for themselves…

Via The Consumerist, I just watched [Customer Records His 7-Hour Delayed Flight In All Its Baby-Screaming Glory]

– and I’m honestly frightened to ever use Delta again. What’s going to be done for these poor passengers, and what will be done as incentive for those of us who are now afraid to use Delta’s services?

Without a decent response from you, I’ll be canceling my Delta American Express. I will be looking for another airline to transfer my miles, as well. This is pretty scary!

Delta’s response:

From: Customer Care
Date: Jul 10, 2007 9:34 AM
Subject: Re: Flight_Delay_Cancellation – Current and Future (KMM17442327I108L0KM)
To: [redacted]

July 10, 2007

Dear Ms. [redacted],

Thank you for your correspondence concerning the extended tarmac delay of one of our Delta Connection flights.

We are working hard to eliminate delays for our customers, especially those that result in delays onboard the aircraft. As always, safety is our number one concern. When weather, ATC delays, and other factors outside our control impact our ability to operate as scheduled, we try to do everything we can to minimize the inconvenience to our customers.

Recent ATC computer failures and resulting gridlock are perfect examples of why the ultimate solution that will reduce passenger frustration with extended tarmac delays is to modernize our nation’s antiquated ATC system. We must move from the decades-old radar and analog ATC system to more precise satellite navigation and digital communication-based ATC technology that will increase capacity. Please know that we will do everything within our control to prevent future occurrences of tarmac delays.

Again, thank you for contacting us. We will always welcome the opportunity to be of service.


Kay Rose
Customer Care

What about when you lied to this guy’s wife and said the plane had already left, even though she had just got off the phone with him and it was still on the ground? Would space lasers have solved that airplane conundrum, Kay? Or would an electrified grid of stardust have prevented you from announcing over the intercom that the pilot was making his way through the terminal, when he was really still in Newark? No amount of future-tech can overcome man’s historical tendency to pass the buck.

(Photo: Maulleigh)


Edit Your Comment

  1. Doug says:

    As crappy as Delta may be, she can take her miles anywhere she likes and end up no safer from delays and people’s incompetence. Even if they did have space lasers, space laser jets, or space laser-salted peanuts, ATC still isn’t run by individual carriers anymore than the terminals are.

  2. FLConsumer says:

    Wow, an honest reply from Delta on the major source of problems. Of course, they’re forgetting about what options THEY could do to make things more comfortable for passengers who are stuck in the middle, but at least it’s not a total PR promo.

  3. Chese says:

    Yeah, Delta is lying. ATC is being upgraded but its far more advanced than the letter indicates. FWIW, airplanes already use GPS anyways.

  4. aesurf says:

    Unfortunately, Delta is lying. While ATC did cause part of this delay, and while this nation does need ATC reform, in the video the pilot announces very clearly that at least part of the delay was caused by a mechanical issue, something conveniently omitted in Delta’s response.


    PS: If you want to retain your sanity, do avoid JFK this summer for connections unti traffic normalizes :)

  5. Scuba Steve says:

    I think we need to start blaming things on criminal negligence. That way things will start sorting themselves out real quick.

  6. TPIRman says:

    This is the tip of an iceberg. There’s a concerted push by the airlines right now to convince the public of a need for updated ATC. It has been a Delta talking point (example) for a while now, and most of the other airlines are much the same.

    I flew on a US Airways flight last week and forgot my reading material, so I paged through the in-flight magazine. I came across this essay by noted inebriate and US Airways CEO Doug Parker. He makes it sound like an updated ATC system will magically solve all of society’s problems with its satellite-based rays of hope.

    But to his credit, Parker does basically admit that the push for a new ATC is all about money. New technology is super, but what really makes the commercial airline industry salivate is the prospect of getting private-jet operators to pay a larger share of the ATC costs.

    Part of the reason for the fervor over ATC is an attempt to fob off recent publicity over delays, but mostly it’s because there is ATC legislation rattling around in Congress that would put up billions of dollars for a GPS-based ATC system and, if the airline lobbyists are successful, increase the tax burden on smaller private outfits. Unfortunately for Doug Parker et al., ATC legislation is currently gummed up by labor disputes.

    Delta’s using the ATC talking points in response to an unrelated customer-service letter is bizarre and insulting, but I guess that shows you how serious the airline is about reworking the tax structure in its favor. They’ll take advantage of any opportunity to get the public on their side, no matter how crass.

  7. OwenCatherwood says:

    The FAA is already working towards SatNav systems, but guess who the biggest problem in this debate is? The air carriers. SatNav is already out in its early stages with direct routings on some cross-country flights, and extensive use of GPS-based enroute airways along the West Coast and the Gulf of Mexico.

    Air traffic controllers are trying to give area navigation (RNAV) procedures a try, but the biggest problem is not antequated FAA equipment at times, but the fact that no standard exists to regulate how an airline should encode the GPS-based procedures, resulting in unexpected deviations based on the hacks used to get aging flight management computers to do what they were not designed to do. Very technical details of what I just summerized

  8. timmus says:

    The ATC modernization proposals are a red herring. Delta needs to address whether it’s meeting basic humanitarian obligations of food and passengers held hostage by tarmac delays. I think the fact that they’re almost certainly opposed to supporting the Airline Passenger’s Bill of Rights makes this letter analogous to complaining to drug dealers about a neighborhood drug problem.

  9. timmus says:

    …of food and water for passengers held hostage…

  10. nequam says:

    I’m confused. What was Rebekah after by writing to Delta? Was there really something Delta could have said to alleviate her fright to ever use Delta again? Or we she looking for a freebie, like bonus miles?

    It’s one thing to needle a company on behalf of consumers generally (like the Consumerist often and ably does), but when she points out that she is a Delta American Express cardholder and threatens cancellation barring a “decent response,” it starts to reek of opportunism.

  11. nequam says:

    Oops, typo: WAS she looking . . .

  12. BK88 says:

    The real causes of flight delays besides weather are, OVERSCHEDULING of flights into and out of hubs, and LACK OF RUNWAYS. Runways have not been built to meet demand, and when they are proposed the NIMBYs get in the way, so blame them. (I think NIMBYs who protest new runways should never be allowed to fly again.)

    Most air carriers do haveprecision navigation, and digital radar will not improve the separation requirement between your plane and the other plane of less than 5 miles (same altitude) or 1000ft separation. Today’s radar handles that just fine.

    The other cause is staffing of Air Traffic Controllers. Go read the press releases at and find out for yourself.


  13. GreenChip says:

    What is really interesting is that he was filming the take off of the plane with an electronic device, which should have been turned in the off position according to FAA rules. I wonder if that is punishable by a fine.

  14. wakela says:

    Rebeka: I’m complaining about situation A.
    Delta: Situation A was caused by B.
    Consumerist: Liars! That doesn’t explain situations C and D!
    Me (to Consumerist): If you are going to accuse a company of lying please give evidence of it lying.
    Scare quotes in the heading don’t count as evidence.

    Side note: Being wrong does not equal lying.

  15. RebekahSue says:


    I’m confused. What was Rebekah after by writing to Delta? Was there really something Delta could have said to alleviate her fright to ever use Delta again? Or we she looking for a freebie, like bonus miles?

    It’s one thing to needle a company on behalf of consumers generally (like the Consumerist often and ably does), but when she points out that she is a Delta American Express cardholder and threatens cancellation barring a “decent response,” it starts to reek of opportunism.

    I wanted Delta to know that I’m a real customer (I wrote via their site and gave them my Frequent Flyer
    number) and wanted a response.

    A fellow Consumer was hurt by this company. I wanted Delta to know that not only did they screw over the people on the flight. they got caught on video – and a whole bunch of people who weren’t on board knew about it. I wanted them to know that I’m a customer of Delta, and of American Express, not just some random person who saw the video.

    I wanted the people who sat in their safe, comfortable offices – with food and coffee and the permission to use the bathroom as needed! – to watch the video and to be as appalled as I was.

    I’d be offended, nequam, but you don’t know the kind of working-class, middle-class neighborhood in which i grew up – where one can still walk down the street to borrow a cup of sugar and where the kids share their toys when they play outside on the front lawns – nor do you realize that I see the Internet as my virtual neighborhood. I stuck in my nose here, the same as I would if one of my neighbors had been on that flight, a neighbor who deserved better treatment. If we were talking about one of my physical neighbors, I’d threaten to take(and follow up on taking) my business elsewhere if they didn’t give answers to my neighbor.

    I didn’t see any other Delta customers letting Delta know that they saw the video, nor did I see any other Delta customers getting a response – even a form letter.


    Scare quotes in the heading don’t count as evidence.

    That was directed at whoever wrote the headline to this article, and not to me, right?

    (With my health, and Delta AmEx giving multiplied miles for pharmacies, I’ve racked up over 22,000 miles this year.
    With health insurance being what it is, I can’t afford hotel + car rental to use the miles, until I pay down some of these bills. Why whould you think *I* was scamming miles for this episode? *I* wasn’t on the flight…?)

    This is wrapping funny… apologies to whoever reads to the end.

  16. InThrees says:

    Two years ago I flew from Columbia, SC to Seattle, WA to visit my grandmother for a week. The flight there was your standard “peasant in steerage” air travel, with no noteworthy happenings.

    The flight back, on the other hand… While waiting at the gate in Sea-Tac (the airport) we noticed that the departure time was rapidly approaching, but no call to boarding had occurred. Finally, one of the Delta employees told us there was a mechanical fault with the plane, and that it would be about 2 hours for a new plane.

    I had a connecting flight from DC to Columbia that left a few hours after the original DC arrival time from Sea-Tac, so I was worried but assumed that I would get home on time, or close to it.

    No, we ended up landing 5 minutes before my connecting flight took off, on the other side of the DC airport. (which is… well, pretty huge.) I missed it, so I went to the only customer service desk open then, and got into a line about 80 people long. When I finally got to the counter, I was told that the next flight to Columbia was at 10 or 11am… and it was 9:30pm.

    The good:
    – Delta decided to be magnanimous and give us free soda and snacks while were in that 80 person line, waiting to be told that we were SOL and that we would have to spend the night in the terminal. (Ok, turns out I was actually one of three or four people who ended up doing that, the others luckily had much sooner replacement flights.)

    – They gave us sodas and snacks in that line!

    The bad:

    – When I asked if Delta could do anything to ease the inconvenience of being waylaid in an airport terminal for some 13 hours or so, I got a nice apology. And a “No.”

    – I got into a taxi in front of my grandmother’s house in Tacoma, WA around noon. I expected to get out of a taxi in front of my apartment in Columbia, SC at around 11:30 that night. (local times each) I actually ended up getting out of that taxi at 2pm the FOLLOWING day.

    Having been a business owner, I firmly believe in making things right… and it’s something Delta just won’t do any more unless they are cattle-prodded into it. I probably could have done some sort of executive mail carpet bomb variant to get some sort of satisfaction, but after the 24+ hour ordeal I just decided I was done – both with the event and with Delta.

  17. STrRedWolf says:

    Actually, the comments by Delta are not that far from the truth. The air traffic control system currently in place dates back to World War II, and system failures constantly make the national news (as well as here). There’s only so much that can be done with such an old system.

    So, what’s the next step? First, all airplanes should have GPS systems put in — not for the pilot who’s lost his way to Chicago, but for controllers to get exact data on where an airplane is. This data can also be relayed to the airlines, giving Delta less of an excuse for saying “Oh, he’s in the air.” when he’s not: GPS reports altitude too, and you can safely assume if an airplane is about six feet higher the known airport’s altitude *it’s on the ground*.

    Still, Delta doesn’t have an excuse, because many airports will let you track the flight via a unified service that displays where an airplane is by ether tail number or airline and flight number. US Airways and United points to such a site, last time I recall.

  18. buffawhat says:

    Nice to know that Delta keeps trying to use the excuse for not being able to keep up. A month ago I was caught up with delays at every flight going from BUF(buffalo, NY) to RDU(Raliegh, NC). It was only about 4 hours of delays, but the point was that my mother in Raleigh (along with many other people waiting for loved ones) had to wait hours believing that the flights were on time because Delta was telling them and the computers were not being updated with the correct times.

    some of the details are here from my two hour wait in Atlanta for Delta to get the flight attendant crew to Atlanta from La Guardia so we could go to Raleigh…

  19. Snarkysnake says:

    Dear valued Delta Medallion customer,

    Thank you for contacting Delta’s customer care center regarding your recent experience with our rude,unresponsive ticket agents at our BWI facility.Please rest assured that we are exploring every alternative to making your Delta travel experience a safe and comfortable one.

    As you may already know,Delta places the highest value on our employees well being and career satisfaction.This is just one of many reasons that Delta does not permit the ticket agent at our BWI facility (the agent with cornrows and a bad attitude) to glance up at you when she is on her personal cell phone.Company regulations (and indeed,FAA policy) prohibit this or any other company personnel from performing work related tasks while in uniform or within 500 yards of a designated work facility (DWF).

    Further,your concern that our Delta Connection partner,Atlantic Southeast Airlines,is “repository of the dregs of the transportation industry” is being communicated to the appropriate division management. Believe me,they could give a damn. ASA has been a shipwreck for all of the years that we ran it and then we offloaded this turd to those rubes at Skywest.I would also like to note that we have been so embarassed by this “airline” that we recently took over 1800 ASA employees into a special Delta program that teaches them to read,write and eat with a fork.We think that you will see our positive attitude in all that we do at our Delta Connection partner.Or not.

    Finally ,Please contact your representatives in congress to demand an upgrade of our nations antiquated , obsolete, air traffic control technology.This will ensure that your Delta travel experience will continue to be pleasnt,comfortable and safe (as long as you pay for it and we benefit from it to make a profit).

    Thanks for flying Delta and we look forward to hearing from you again soon.

    Sidney Freemster
    Delta Airlines Customer Service Representative

    Okay- This is not a real letter from Delta.It is much too accurate and honest to be real.It wasn’t that long ago that Delta was the gold standard for customer service and satisfaction.Now,it’s just another crappy airline. All of this krankum about the ATC system is just a device to get your mind off of their non existent service.Demand more. Reward good service. Fly Southwest when available.

    Good luck…

  20. nequam says:

    @RebekahSue: Okay. But may I call your bluster? Did you cancel the card? Or did you consider the response decent?

    I understand and appreciate your effort to let Delta know that, as a customer (and a frequent one at that), you were concerned about their treatment of customers generally. However, when you threatened to cancel the card you changed the character of your letter from “please improve service for ‘a neighbor who deserved better treatment'” to “do something for me.” You could have simply said that you are a miles-carrying customer and a cardholder and then expressed your concern. But you took it an extra step with your threat.

    Your threat to cancel was straightforward: give me a decent response or I cancel. I doubt your tip to Consumerist said “look at this decent response I got.” So, did you cancel?

  21. RebekahSue says:


    Your threat to cancel was straightforward: give me a decent response or I cancel. I doubt your tip to Consumerist said “look at this decent response I got.” So, did you cancel?

    I forwarded the entire email without comment to Ben.
    And no, I did not cancel. I received a response. I’m not thrilled – I would have rather heard, as I said, how appalled CS was by the video – but they did respond, as I asked, and I’m petty but not THAT petty.

  22. wakela says:

    No, the crack about the scare quotes was not directed at you.

  23. Thetinguy says:

    It’s true though, the Air Traffic Control system of the US IS decades old. Many airports still have systems from the 60’s and 70’s. However it’s partly the Airlines fault that new systems have not been introduced yet. They can’t the stop traffic because they believe they will lose money.

  24. jburland says:

    Six of one and half a dozen of the other.
    Delays are caused by
    Over-ambitious scheduling
    which doesn’t take into account
    Airport congestion
    Maintenance issues caused by an tired old fleet of aircraft
    compounded by
    Inefficient and antiquated ATC systems
    Travel efficiency isn’t going to improve until all of these issues are addressed.

  25. nequam says:

    @RebekahSue: Hopefully your empty threat and others like it don’t render real threats to cancel services meaningless to companies.

  26. MayaAH says:

    Oh, it’s not just ATC that’s antiquated at Delta. I recently tried to use a travel voucher (that I received because they bumped me from an overbooked flight in December) and was told that I can only do so in person at an airport–not online or over the phone.

    When I finally made my way through the phone tree to someone who would tell me why this was their policy, the excuse I received? That they are using an “antiquated” computer system that cannot take voucher numbers except at an airport. That’s right, their computer system is so old that a phone reservation agent cannot enter a voucher number into the computer.

    Makes me worry about the age of their planes….