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Flight cancellations soar into New Year's Day with 2,400 flights scrapped

Jan. 01, 2022
6 min read
Southwest 737 ATL Stock-1
Flight cancellations soar into New Year's Day with 2,400 flights scrapped
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More than 2,400 flights to, from and within the U.S. were canceled on Saturday, New Year's Day, as a spate of COVID-19 and weather-related flight disruptions spilled into 2022.

While the ongoing cancellations have been largely driven by the spread of the omicron variant across the U.S., with airline employees calling out sick and isolating after positive tests, severe weather on Friday and Saturday contributed to the mass disruptions.

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A severe snowstorm forecasted for Chicago led to more than 1,000 canceled flights into and out of the city. As of noon ET on Saturday, 399 flights from Chicago O'Hare (ORD) had been canceled, or 45% of the day's scheduled departures, as well as 423 arriving flights, 43% of the day's schedule, according to flight-tracking service FlightAware.

130 flights (57%) from Chicago Midway Airport (MDW) were also canceled, as well as 143 arriving flights (66%).

Winter weather in Denver and Detroit also fueled the cancellations, with 72 departures (9%) and 89 arrivals (11%) canceled at Denver International Airport (DEN), and 67 departures (20%) and 59 arrivals (18%) from Detroit (DTW) also cut.

Southwest Airlines, which had so far escaped the worst of the holiday cancellations, had the highest number of flight cancelations on Saturday with 472, or 13% of its schedule. Southwest has significant operations in Denver and at Chicago Midway.

SkyWest, a regional airline that operates flights for the major U.S. airlines, including United out of Denver, canceled 429 flights (21%).

American Airlines, which had also managed to dodge the worst of the disruptions over the past two weeks, canceled 206 flights as of noon ET on Friday, roughly 7% of its schedule. American operates a hub in Chicago, along with United, which canceled 153 flights (7%).

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Delta Air Lines canceled 186 flights (9%) on Saturday, while JetBlue canceled 118 (11%). Both airlines, along with United, have been among the most affected by the omicron-related sick calls. Alaska Airlines, which saw its hub at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) hit by winter weather twice earlier this week, canceled 56 flights (9%).

Several other regional carriers also canceled large numbers of flights on Saturday, further complicating things for the mainline carriers.

Mesa, which flies for American and United, canceled 84 flights (19%), while Envoy Air, which flies for American, cut 83 (11%). Republic, which flies for American, Delta and United, canceled 76 (10%), and CommutAir, which operates flights for United, canceled 69 flights (28%). Air Wisconsin, which also flies for United, cut 135 flights (56%). Endeavor Air, a Delta subsidiary, cut 37 flights (7%), while Horizon, which flies for Alaska Airlines and was impacted by weather in Seattle earlier this week, cut just 7 flights (2%).

Several U.S. low-cost carriers also canceled significant numbers of flights on Saturday. Allegiant canceled 64 (27%), Spirit cut 93 (11%), and Frontier canceled 29 (6%).

Several airlines have confirmed that a large number of cancellations have resulted from flight crews testing positive for COVID-19 as the omicron variant spreads across the U.S.

At least at one airline, albeit one seeing less impact from the current case counts, the majority of the sick calls were from pilots.

Between Dec. 24 and Dec. 31, pilot staffing was the cause of between 80 and 90% of American Airlines’ flight cancellations, Captain Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, told TPG. APA is the union representing American’s pilots.

“American builds the schedule for a sunny day, not for weather events or COVID disruptions,” Tajer said.

Many of the cancellations appear to be carried out proactively — typically several hours to several days before a flight is scheduled to depart — a strategic decision airlines make to try and minimize disruptions that have the potential to be greater.

JetBlue said on Thursday that it was cutting flights through Jan. 13 in an effort to give customers more time to plan alternatives.

Related: Here’s what to do if your flight is delayed or canceled

“Like many businesses and organizations, we have seen a surge in the number of sick calls from omicron,” the airline said in a statement provided by a spokesperson. “We entered the holiday season with the highest staffing levels we’ve had since the pandemic began and are using all resources available to cover our staffing needs.”

The spokesperson said that JetBlue was cutting about 1,280 flights between Dec. 30 and Jan. 13 — an average of 85 flights per day.

On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shortened the time that people who test positive for COVID-19 must isolate, lowering it from ten days to five, which could alleviate pressure on industries with large numbers of staff out on sick leave. The lobbying organization for U.S airlines, Airlines for America, last week asked the CDC to revise the guidance, arguing that the longer period was demonstrably unnecessary and could lead to operational disruptions. Delta and JetBlue also separately made similar requests to the CDC, which has led to some criticism and skepticism surrounding the guidelines.

Related: What do the CDC’s new isolation and quarantine recommendations mean for travel?

Delta said on Monday night that it was working to implement the new guidelines.

Despite the shortened isolation period, however, the rapid and expansive spread of the omicron variant has the potential to drag out the disruption to air travel.

“While the new CDC guidelines should help get crewmembers back to work sooner, and our schedule reduction and other efforts will further ease day-of cancellations, we expect the number of COVID cases in the northeast – where most of our crewmembers are based – to continue to surge for the next week or two,” JetBlue added in its statement Thursday. “This means there is a high likelihood of additional cancellations until case counts start to come down.”

Ethan Klapper contributed to this report.

Featured image by David Slotnick/The Points Guy
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