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More than 1,300 flight cancellations mar New Year's Eve travel weekend

Dec. 31, 2021
5 min read
Denver International Airport the day before Thanksgiving
More than 1,300 flight cancellations mar New Year's Eve travel weekend
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More than 1,300 flights to, from and within the U.S. were canceled on Friday as short staffing linked to the omicron variant of COVID-19 continued to vex the U.S. airline network.

The situation was complicated on Friday by severe weather around Denver, with fierce winds on Thursday sparking a rare wildfire and a major snowstorm forecasted for Friday, as the Seattle area continued to recover from two snow events earlier this week.

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As of noon ET on Friday, 125 flights from Denver International Airport (DEN) had been canceled, or 15% of the airline's outbound flights for the day, according to flight-tracking service FlightAware. Another 143 (17%) inbound flights were canceled.

United Airlines, which operates a hub at Denver, canceled 209 flights on Friday, about 11% of its scheduled operations.

SkyWest, a regional airline that operates flights for the major U.S. airlines, including United out of Denver, was the most impacted airline on Friday with 282 cancellations (14%), including 109 (31%) to or from Denver.

Southwest, which operates a major base at Denver, appeared to fare somewhat better, but still saw 84 cancellations (2%) on Friday. Fellow Dallas-headquartered carrier American Airlines, meanwhile, appeared to be having a largely normal day, with just 38 cancellations (1%).

JetBlue and Delta Air Lines, which along with United have been among the mainline carriers most affected by the COVID-related cancellations, continued to see an impact on Friday. JetBlue canceled 145 flights (14%), while Delta cut 104 flights (5%).

Although the weather-related disruptions around Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) improved by Friday, residual cancellations continued to cause problems, with 57 outbound flights (12%) and 72 inbound flights (15%) canceled. Alaska Airlines, which operates a hub at Seattle, canceled 64 flights (9%), including 56 (15%) at Seattle. SkyWest canceled 29 of its flights (36%) at Seattle, mostly operated for Delta, while 19 Delta mainline flights at the airport (12%) were canceled.

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SkyWest was not the only regional airline cutting flights on Friday.

CommutAir, which flies for United largely out of Houston Intercontinental Airport (IAH), canceled 62 flights on Friday, or 33% of its flights. Mesa, which flies for American and United, canceled 53 flights (13%). Horizon, which flies for Alaska Airlines, canceled 18 flights (6%).

Low-cost carriers in the U.S. were also impacted Friday. Allegiant Air canceled 89 flights (18%), while Spirit canceled 71 (9%).

Several airlines have confirmed that a large number of cancellations have been caused by 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 Denver Post via Getty Images
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