Flight cancellations climb again as disruptions threaten New Years weekend

Dec 30, 2021

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U.S. airlines on Thursday entered a second week of flight cancellations linked to the spread of the omicron variant, with more than 1,000 flights grounded around the country.

The disruptions linked to the surge in COVID-19 cases were complicated by severe winter weather in Seattle, which saw a half-foot of snow and freezing temperatures earlier in the week followed by more snowfall on Thursday.

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Nearly 300 flights in and out of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport were canceled as of 11 a.m. ET, according to flight-tracking service FlightAware. — more than a quarter of the airport’s scheduled operations for the day.

United Airlines canceled 190 flights on Thursday, according to FlightAware, representing about 8% of its schedule.

Coming a close second was SkyWest, which operates flights as a regional carrier for the major U.S. airlines, including for Delta out of Seattle. The regional airline canceled 178 flights on Thursday, 7% of the schedule.

JetBlue, which has been significantly impacted as omicron cases soar across the Northeast, canceled 175 flights, about 17% of its schedule while Delta, which had also been among the most affected airlines last week, canceled just 86 flights, 3% of its planned mainline operations, down from 137 on Wednesday.

Alaska Airlines, which operates a hub in Seattle, appeared to be continuing to struggle under the weight of the omicron-snow one-two punch, with 97 flights canceled as of Thursday morning — 14% of the schedule.

Elsewhere around the regional airlines, Horizon, which operates flights for Alaska, cut 18% of its scheduled flights with 51 cancellations, while Mesa, which flies for American and United, canceled 32 flights (6%).

Several low-cost carriers were also impacted. Allegiant Air nixed 89 flights (18%), while Spirit canceled 41 (5%).

Several airlines, meanwhile, managed to avoid the worst of the disruptions. Southwest Airlines canceled just 12 flights, and American Airlines only canceled four — statistically 0% of each airline’s respective schedules.

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.

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.

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.”

Featured photo by George Rose/Getty Images

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