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

Dec. 24, 2021
4 min read
US airlines scrap 500 Friday flights, preemptive cancellations now roll into Christmas day
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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.”

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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 image by (Image courtesy of United Airlines)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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If you are looking to take your premium rewards to the highest level, this card is really a no brainer in our eyes. Chase's Ultimate Rewards make points easy to redeem, with a wide range of 10 airline and three hotel transfer partners and a friendly user interface. Despite the high annual fee, Chase is consistently adding new benefits to keep the card competitive in a fierce premium rewards field.

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  • $300 annual travel credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year
  • Access to Chase Ultimate Rewards hotel and airline travel partners
  • Unlimited 3x points on the broad category of travel and dining
  • 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Broad definitions for travel and dining bonus categories

Cons

  • Steep $550 annual fee
  • May not make sense for people that don't travel frequently
  • You must spend the $300 travel credit before earning 3x points for travel and dining
  • No automatic hotel elite status
  • Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year.
  • Earn 5x total points on flights and 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards® immediately after the first $300 is spent on travel purchases annually. Earn 3x points on other travel and dining & 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Get 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,200 toward travel
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Access to 1,300+ airport lounges worldwide after an easy, one-time enrollment in Priority Pass™ Select and up to $100 application fee credit every four years for Global Entry, NEXUS, or TSA PreCheck®
  • Count on Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Lost Luggage Insurance and more