More than 1,500 US flights canceled Christmas weekend as omicron disruptions continue

Dec 26, 2021

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Major U.S. airlines canceled another 300 flights on Sunday, continuing a spate of disruptions linked to the surge of COVID-19 cases across the country driven by the spread of the new omicron variant.

Cancellations appeared to slow, however, with fewer cancellations than we saw on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Delta Air Lines appeared to be the most badly affected as of 10:45 a.m. ET on Sunday, cutting 131 flights for the day after Christmas, or 5% of its schedule according to flight-tracking service FlightAware — down from around 300 on Saturday. United Airlines canceled 96, or 4% of its schedule, down from several hundred the day prior, while JetBlue cut 110, representing about 10% of its scheduled flights for the day. American Airlines canceled 64 flights, or 2% of its schedule.

Carriers canceled more than 1,500 flights between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

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In a statement Thursday night, a spokesperson for United confirmed that an uptick in COVID-19 cases among employees was behind the airline’s disruptions.

“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.”

The disruptions come as holiday travel volumes neared pre-pandemic levels.

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

“We entered the holiday season with the highest staffing levels we’ve had since the pandemic began and are using all resources available to us to cover our staffing needs,” a spokesperson for JetBlue said in a statement. “Despite our best efforts, we’ve had to cancel a number of flights, and additional flight cancellations and other delays remain a possibility as we see more Omicron community spread.”

“The health and safety of our crewmembers and customers remains our top priority as we work through this pandemic, and we sincerely apologize for the inconvenience that these schedule changes bring during the holidays,” the statement added.

The COVID-19-related issues come as at least two big airlines and the 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 cancellations 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.

On Thursday, a spokesperson for Delta said the airline was making proactive cancellations 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 was forecasted around Delta’s Seattle and Salt Lake City hubs.

“We apologize to customers for the delay in their holiday travel plans,” the spokesperson said in an updated statement on Saturday night. “Delta people are working together around the clock to reroute and substitute aircraft and crews to get customers where they need to be as quickly and safely as possible. When that’s not possible, Delta Reservations specialists coordinated with our Operations and Customer Care Center to get those impacted on the next available flight.”

“Delta expects more than 300 of its flights will be canceled on Sunday, Dec. 26,” the spokesperson added.

Featured photo by David Slotnick/The Points Guy

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