When Things Go Wrong: 2016 Delta Systems Outage

For over a decade, my work has taken me to plenty of fascinating places: war-torn countries, exclusive islands, and various capital cities. Inevitably, flying as much as I’ve had to leads to some delays, cancellations, and missed flights. In the summer of 2016 I found myself in the holy grail of travel predicaments.

At 3 AM on 8 Aug 2016, I woke up to an email from Delta airlines informing me of an outage within their systems that was causing delays and cancellations across the country. My flight later that afternoon still appeared on my reservations page at Delta. However the time was no longer stated, and the words "DELAYED" were in a bold red color.

After seeing this email, I quickly turned on the national news and simultaneously searched Google for information about Delta travel delays. The situation was everywhere. Thousands of flights delayed or cancelled, lines of people snaking throughout various airports, and Delta employees were flustered by the situation. I knew that we had to move quickly to find another path to my intended work location.

My journey was intended to take me to the small tourist town of Pantelleria on the 9th of August to begin two months of work on the island. This would be my second rotation to that location; and while I was familiar with the itinerary, the Delta outage was quite the wrench in my normal plans.

I knew immediately that getting to the airport early would be beneficial. So we loaded up the car and made our way to Raleigh International Airport (RDU). The we in this conversation, as always, was my wife and kids who fronted the burden of seeing me off during my multitude of foreign trips.

As we arrived at the airport, the situation proved to be more dire than what was reported. Lines at the ticketing counter had already spilled out the front door. Luckily, I had been signed up for Delta’s frequent flyer program and was a gold member due to the fact that I was a business traveler making many trips a year to various overseas locations. This was lucky in that I was able to skip the snaking main check-in line for the Delta VIP line set aside for first class and gold/diamond club members.

While waiting in the much shorter line, I noticed a co-worker waiting in the main check-in line. Knowing this person had a much higher Delta status, I motioned for him to meet me in the VIP line. We then waited minutes instead of hours.

For the first time in my many travels, I noticed that every ticketing counter was occupied. While the outage had created a catastrophe, Delta seemed up to the task. I approached the ticket counter and greeted the visibly weary Delta employee. As soon as I made it to the counter, the employee apologized for the delays and thanked me for my continued patronage of Delta. They ran through the litany of problems happening on that day and expressed a need for patience while they tried to move my flight to a partner airline.

After an extended period of time on the computer and the phone, the employee informed me that an air France flight from Raleigh to Paris, France was available. This alternate flight could get me from Paris to Milan, Italy, and then AlItalia airlines would take me from Milan to meet my originally reserved flight in Palermo, Italy that would take me to Pantelleria. This seemed like an easy fix, but I did not allow myself to get complacent knowing nothing in travel is easy; and the slightest change can derail the entire journey.

Once I received my coveted tickets, the clock in my head started. If there were no more delays, I would have 30 minutes in Palermo to get my bags, check them in again, get through security, and reach my gate in time for boarding. While this would be impossible at an airport like JFK in New York, the airport in Palermo is small, and the security lines normally do not take longer than a few minutes.

I made my way through security and walked to my gate to wait for the next two hours for my Air France flight to Paris' Charles De Gaulle airport. Once at the gate, the first curveball in the journey was thrown. Lightening had hit within a mile of the airport and flights were delayed due to weather. This was not initially a problem because international flights usually have long layovers due to the amount of actions a passenger needs to take from deplaning the aircraft to boarding the next flight.

The 4 PM take-off had now changed to 7 PM as we waited for the weather to pass. This amount of waiting usually allows me to make my way to RDU’s 42nd Street Oyster Bar for some food and a few calming libations. This time, I was not going to take that chance in case more disruptions occurred. I wanted to be the first in line for a ticket change if the flight became cancelled.

Six PM rolled around, and the boarding process began. I am not sure I had ever been so happy to get on a flight in my life. The boarding process went smoothly, and I was buckled up for an eight hour flight to Paris. If there were no delays in air or while landing at the airport in Paris, I would have more than enough time to make my way through the airport to my next flight towards Milan, Italy.

The plane landed with no further delays, and I was luckily off the plane in no time at all. Once deplaned, I walked to the first Air France customer service counter to make sure my bags were being put on to my next flight. Most airlines now let you track baggage through their applications which makes this step in the travel process unnecessary. The Air France clerk assured me my bags were being transferred to my next flight.

I then arrived at my departure gate to find the boarding process had already begun. This was a nice deviation from my usual travels, as I would normally be waiting at the gate for hours. Due to Delta’s partnership with Air France and my status as a gold member on Delta, I was able to use the Club Member’s line to board and get to my seat. I recommend always applying for airline frequent flyers memberships. It is free, and if you stick to one air line the benefits are great.

The plane arrived in Milan on time, but the Milan Malpensa Airport had different plans for me. All flights were delayed until further notice due to weather. While I made it to Milan safely, I would now be waiting for weather to pass to get to Palermo, Italy. The 30 minute window to get from plane to gate would be impossible.

As I processed this information, I took my phone out and went to the Palermo airport website to check on my flight from Palermo to Pantelleria. To my surprise, the flight had been delayed due to mechanical malfunction with the aircraft. The time displayed could give time for the weather to pass, the plane to board take off and land; and for me to do everything need to board my original flight. There was hope!

The next wrench in my journey would be an alert on my phone telling me my flight from Palermo to Pantelleria had been cancelled and to see a ticketing agent at the airport for the next available flight. I am grateful that I was not in flight when this alert hit; so I was aware of it throughout my next flight and planned my next course of action as soon as I landed. The plane in Milan boarded 2 hours delayed and, with no more delays, I was in the air towards my next stop.

I was immediately met with chaos as I deplaned in Palermo. Apparently the majority of flights departing the island were cancelled or delayed, and everyone was attempting to readjust travel plans in order to go on or depart from vacation. I picked up my bags and made my way to the ticket counter to speak with an agent. As I waited in line, I met up once again with my co-worker who looked just as defeated as I felt. We discussed our options as we knew we would be denied a flight on this night and needed to be in Pantelleria before 8AM the next day.

Our fears were confirmed as I walked up to the agent and was told there would be no flights to Pantelleria until noon the next day. We both left the line and formulated a plan to get to the island town before 8AM the next morning. Pantelleria is not far from Palermo, but it is also a separate island. Getting to my destination by a cab would be impossible. My co-worker made a call to our on-site manager for any recommendations. His advice was to take a cab to the port and hop on the overnight ferry that leaves around 11PM and arrives into the island at 4AM.

The long journey potentially became even longer with this information. So while my coworker worked on acquiring a ticket for the ferry, I walked over to the main airport counter for advice on a good cab company to use. The lady at the desk asked where I was trying to go, and I regaled her with the whole story. She checked her computer and looked up with a smile.

“You need to get to Pantelleria today?” she asked. I told her that was indeed my predicament and since no planes were going there until tomorrow I will have to take the long ferry journey. She updated me that my original flight’s mechanical malfunction had been fixed and would be boarding in an hour.

I was at a loss for words. My ticket on that flight had been cancelled, so would I be allowed back on? It never hurts to ask, and I did. She assured me she could get me on the flight and issued me my boarding pass. I called my coworker over but he had already purchased his ferry ticket and wanted to see how that process worked for future lessons learned. It was a selfless decision on his part and saved a lot of future hassle for the company. We parted ways to travel different modes of transportation to our destination.

I handed my bags to the ticket lady and walked toward security. As usual, the security line took two minutes to navigate through, and I was off towards the boarding gate. As I reached the gate, I could see the boarding line and more chaos. The flight had been over booked due to all the delays and cancellations, and the gate attendant was stressing that no one would be allowed with carry on bags. Most older people were worried about medication they would need in flight, and some younger folks were helping them consolidate those medicines in a clear quart bag.

The boarding began, and it was a slow process. Each person was checked to ensure they did not have a carry on bag. Then they were allowed outside on the tarmac, where we would then climb the steps onto our dual propeller plane en route to Pantelleria.

Thankfully, take-off and landing were a breeze, and I had made it to work with hours to spare. The journey was long and arduous, but the steps taken by myself, Delta airlines, and my family to mitigate a constant flow of crises all worked together to get me to my destination in time.