A Delta B-777 on final approach. Delta retired its B-777 fleet in November 2020. The airline took delivery of the first B-777 in March 1999, and the fleet completed 133,694 flights while in service.

The Delta pilots’ resiliency and leadership persevered in 2020 as Delta Air Lines pivoted from generating record profits to virtually shutting down its worldwide operations overnight. Prior to COVID-19, Delta employees celebrated a historic profit-sharing day—fueled by the company’s focus on customer service, operational reliability, and ability to command a revenue premium with business travelers. The pilots were proud to share the company’s success as frontline leaders with an unwavering focus on safety.

Section 6 contract negotiations were under way with the National Mediation Board joining talks. ALPA’s pilot-driven priorities for “Contract 2019” included seeking improvements to pay, work rules, scope, and retirement. At its March 2020 meeting, the Delta Master Executive Council (MEC) discussed negotiating strategy and the upcoming summer flying season. One week later, the pilots watched in disbelief as rolling flight cancellations ballooned into an almost complete grounding of the Delta fleet.

The MEC quickly adapted to this cataclysmic change in events, setting aside Section 6 talks to focus on the task at hand: helping Delta fly hundreds of airplanes to temporary storage locations across the U.S. One-leg trips to the desert became the norm for a few weeks. Pilots operating revenue flights quickly adjusted to single-digit passenger loads; many travelers were doctors and nurses trying to get to health-care facilities that needed them the most. Delta accelerated the retirement of the MD-88 and MD-90 fleets, parking these jets just weeks into the pandemic.

The pilots understood that quick action was needed and was the first employee group to offer relief. This assistance included letting the company redo a pilot’s schedule to reflect a nearly 90 percent reduction in flying. With Delta burning almost $100 million a day in cash, the pilots’ willingness to step up to the plate saved millions of dollars. The pilots also rallied behind ALPA and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to help make the airline relief package a reality.

To support pilots throughout the pandemic, the MEC adopted an all-hands-on-deck approach to empower the officers, elected representatives, committees, and staff to deal with issues unforeseen just a year before. The MEC created a COVID website as a one-stop shop for information, established a process for pilots to report possible COVID exposures, monitored layover safety and cockpit distractions, and provided resources for pilots dealing with stress.

During the summer, the MEC negotiated a successful voluntary early retirement program to mitigate the company’s overstaffing issues. Approximately 1,800 pilots took the package, leaving early to protect the most junior pilots’ jobs. The Delta MEC will forever be grateful to these pilots who ended their flying careers sooner than they’d planned. Meanwhile, the pilots approved a 1 percent dues assessment to pay for furloughed pilots’ medical premiums in the event of layoffs.

With the future unpredictable, the Delta MEC is committed to protecting pilot jobs, ensuring contract compliance, and preparing for recovery. Management has stated that the airline will be smaller coming out of the pandemic. To that end, thousands of employees took early-out packages, and the B-777s departed the fleet this past November.

While there will undoubtedly be adjustments to the flight plan, Delta pilots remain focused on every flight’s safe operation, taking care of fellow employees and customers, and ensuring the piloting profession remains intact for generations of aviators to come.