Seattle storms add to holiday travel woes as flight cancellations continue

Dec 27, 2021

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Flight cancellations continued across the U.S. on Monday, with winter weather stymieing airlines’ efforts to get back on track following a Christmas weekend meltdown.

Nearly 800 flights operated by U.S. airlines had been canceled as of 1:00 p.m. ET on Monday, according to flight-tracking service FlightAware.

U.S. airlines canceled about 2,000 flights between Christmas Eve and Boxing Day, citing COVID-19 infections among flight crews linked to the rapid spread of the omicron variant across the country.

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The rate of cancellations appeared to have slowed somewhat by Sunday, but winter weather in parts of the U.S. — particularly heavy snow and cold temperatures in the Seattle area — appeared to hinder the recovery and led to a slew of new cancellations on Monday.

Of the nearly 800 cancellations, 262 were on SkyWest, which operates flights as a regional carrier for the major U.S. airlines, including for Delta out of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. About 11% of SkyWest’s flights were canceled

Alaska Airlines, which operates a hub in Seattle, saw 139 cancellations, or 20% of its schedule for the day. Horizon Air, which operates regional flights for Alaska, canceled 31 flights, 11% of its flying for the day.

About 80 flights scheduled to depart from Sea-Tac were canceled — 15% of the day’s scheduled departures — as well as 91 arriving flights, or 17% of the planned arrivals for the day.

Delta, United, and JetBlue, all of which had seen the worst of the Christmas weekend cancellations, appeared to be getting back on track.

Delta canceled 77 flights, or 2% of its schedule as of 12:30 p.m. ET on Monday, compared to 190 on Sunday. United canceled 93 flights as of the same time on Monday — 4% of its schedule — compared to 118 on Sunday. JetBlue, meanwhile, had 66 cancellations Monday, representing 6% of its scheduled flights, compared to 132 on Sunday.

American Airlines had 84 cancellations on Monday, 3% of its schedule, while Southwest canceled 55 flights, roughly 1% of its flights for the day.

The omicron-driven holiday weekend mess was comparable to winter storms that have snarled air traffic during previous winter travel periods.

In March 2019, for instance, airlines canceled 3,500 flights over three days due to a blizzard. Over the holidays in 2013, almost 10,000 flights were canceled due to winter storms, according to airline analyst Helane Becker of Cowen.

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.”

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

“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.”

Featured photo by David Slotnick/The Points Guy

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