US airlines scrap 500 Friday flights, preemptive cancellations now roll into Christmas day

Dec 24, 2021

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Christmas break is turning into a bumpy travel period for U.S. airline customers.

U.S. airlines canceled more than 500 total flights on Friday, Christmas Eve, as operational issues appeared to be building right ahead of the Christmas holiday.

The recent wave of COVID-19 infections sparked by the omicron variant appeared to be driving many of the disruptions, with United’s flight-status page going so far as to attribute some cancellations to “an increase in Covid cases limiting crew availability.”

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A screenshot from United’s app showing a Dec. 24, 2021, cancellation for Flight 1486 from Newark to Denver. (Screenshot courtesy of United Airlines)

United was the most impacted U.S. carrier as of 1:20 p.m. ET, with 183 flights canceled Friday, roughly 9% of its network, according to flight-tracking service FlightAware. Delta was a close second with 160 cancelations, or 8% of its flights.

According to a source familiar with the matter, United planned to upgauge some flights from a Boeing 737 to a Boeing 777 widebody due to a shortage of available 737 pilots linked to omicron outbreaks.

Upgauging flights could cause an additional layer of complication, as it would require additional flight attendants to be staffed on each flight, regardless of load factor. United staffs its 737 flights with three to four flight attendants, while eight cabin crewmembers are required on the 777.

In a statement, a spokesperson for United confirmed that there was a high number of employee call-outs due to COVID-19.

“The nationwide spike in Omicron cases this week has had a direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operation,” the statement said. “As a result, we’ve unfortunately had to cancel some flights and are notifying impacted customers in advance of them coming to the airport. We’re sorry for the disruption and are working hard to rebook as many people as possible and get them on their way for the holidays.”

JetBlue canceled 72 flights on Friday as of 1:20 p.m. ET, 7% of its scheduled flights.

The cancelations began rolling in on Thursday afternoon. Airlines typically use proactive cancelations as a last lever in order to avoid larger disruptions, which appeared to be the case Thursday. United expects the disruption could potentially last through at least the weekend, according to a Network Operations shift log viewed by TPG.

As of Friday afternoon, Delta had already canceled 134 flights for Saturday, or 6% of its schedule, while United canceled 108, or 5%.

The COVID-19-related issues come as at least two big airlines and lobbying trade group Airlines For America have already warned that the CDC’s quarantine requirements could lead to staffing shortages amid the latest wave of infections fueled by the new omicron variant.

The cancelations also come after United CEO Scott Kirby sent a letter to customers in November noting that the airline had avoided the types of staffing-related operational issues that have affected other carriers, including Southwest and American.

“Yes, you can book with confidence on United,” Kirby wrote in the letter.

A spokesperson for Delta said Thursday night that the airline was making proactive cancelations to try and avoid larger operational disruptions caused by a number of issues. In addition to sick call-outs among flight crews due to COVID-19, bad weather is forecasted for Friday into the weekend around Delta’s Seattle and Salt Lake City hubs.

“Delta teams exhausted all options and resources — including rerouting and substitutions of aircraft and crews to cover scheduled flying — before canceling around 90 flights for Friday,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “We apologize to our customers for the delay in their holiday travel plans. Delta people are working hard to get them to where they need to be as quickly and as safely as possible on the next available flight.”

Featured photo courtesy of United Airlines. Additional reporting from TPG’s Ben Mutzabaugh. 


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