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Another travel mess as hundreds more flights canceled and delayed

Jan. 02, 2022
8 min read
Southwest 737-700 Boston-1
Another travel mess as hundreds more flights canceled and delayed
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Editor's Note

This post was updated with additional comments from airlines and travel sources.

Another day, another mess for travelers trying to get home from the holidays ... or anywhere really.

According to flight-tracking service Flight Aware, as of 9:30 p.m. on Sunday, another 2,644 flights are canceled. That includes 560 from SkyWest and 429 from Southwest alone. That's 23% of SkyWest's flights. They are a regional carrier for Alaska, Delta Air Lines and others.

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

I count more than 5,000 delays on Jan. 2 alone.

(Screenshot courtesy Flight Aware)

The most significant factor is the highly-contagious omicron variant of COVID-19 that is leading to sickouts among airline crew, ground support staff and other airport workers.

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Unlike previous airline meltdowns that usually involve one or two carriers, these latest cancellations that have been going now for 11 days are widespread. They impact nearly every airline and travelers from coast to coast.

Henry Harteveldt, a travel analyst from Atmosphere Research, told me, "What's unusual about what we're seeing now, is that the cancellations aren't limited to a particular airline, a particular city or even a particular country. We are seeing airlines around the world having to cancel flights because COVID-19 has left them short-staffed."

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"We just witnessed a brutal holiday air travel season with thousands upon thousands of flight cancellations," said Tim Jue, a San Francisco-based reporter covering airlines and travel.

Brian Sumers is editor-at-large for travel site Skift and said the omicron variant, "caught the airline industry by surprise." Sumers said, "Many executives had believed the worst was behind them." He said as they planned for the holidays, they saw "sky-high demand" and declining cases and they were optimistic.

Sumers told me, "They knew they would have some staffing challenges but they never expected so many employees would be sidelined with the virus during the holiday rush. With so many employees out sick, along with the usual December weather problems, airlines could not keep up. We saw operational meltdowns."

Southwest, with hubs in Chicago and Denver, is among the biggest losers today, with more than 400 flights canceled and another 1,700 delayed. That's 11% of the carrier's flights canceled.

JetBlue is also struggling to recover, with 16% of its flights canceled and another 45% delayed.

Delta Air Lines is also struggling, with 6% of its schedule canceled today.

My colleague David Slotnick reported yesterday that Captain Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, told him that pilot staffing was the cause of between 80 and 90% of American Airlines' flight cancellations. Note that American Airlines has actually been among the best performers over the holidays after that big meltdown back in October.

American Airlines told TPG:

"This weekend’s winter storms are currently having an impact on our operations, accounting for a significant number of our mainline cancellations. The number of COVID-related sick calls is consistent with what we have seen over the past few days. The vast majority of impacted flights were precanceled yesterday so we could proactively notify and accommodate our customers and avoid last-minute disruptions at the airport. We apologize to our customers whose travel plans have been affected, and want thank to our team who have worked tirelessly to help us care for our customers."

On Sunday, AA canceled 5% of its flights and another 23% were delayed.

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

Not helping? Wicked weather in the Midwest and the lingering effects of the storms that shut down Seattle last week.

Chicago O'Hare (ORD), Chicago Midway Airport (MDW) and Detroit (DTW) saw hundreds of snowstorm-related cancellations. At Chicago's two major airports, more than 1,000 flights were canceled.

There was also severe weather at Denver International Airport (DEN) earlier in the week.

And it's not going to get better anytime soon. Another 1,300 plus flights have already been canceled for Monday.

Southwest confirmed to TPG on Sunday that they'd canceled hundreds of flights. In an email, a Southwest spokeswoman said:

"Our Planners continue their work to anticipate operational challenges today as Winter Storm Frida moves across our system and pushes into the Eastern seaboard. We’re working to re-accommodate customers on the approximately 400 flights canceled for today, Sunday (as of 9 a.m. CST), and anticipate additional cancelations today, as Southwest employees at the airports already hit hardest by this storm also deal with challenges brought on by extreme weather."

Southwest has proactively canceled 10% of its flights scheduled for Monday.

United Airlines told me today's cancellations were being driven by the omicron variant staffing issues and weather-related issues. In a statement to TPG, United said:

"The nationwide spike in omicron cases has had a direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operation. 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 during the holidays."

JetBlue said last week it would cut flights through Jan. 13 to get ahead of its problems. In a statement to TPG, JetBlue on Thursday said:

"Like many businesses and organizations, we have seen a surge in the number of sick calls from omicron. 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."

Alaska told me, ".. this latest surge of COVID is driving higher-than-usual absences among all our workgroups. This is compounded by the residual impacts of winter weather in several of our key hubs."

Like other airlines, Alaska has instituted a flexible travel waiver through part of February.

We've reached out to the other major airlines for additional comments.

I asked Harteveldt if there was any end in sight. He said, "My honest answer is I don't know. The end to the problem will appear through the broader COVID-19 data and the trend we see with the case counts." He continued:

"What we have to understand is that we are seeing a very foul stew right now of not only bad weather in the northern hemisphere, which you expect in December and January, but on top of that we have COVID-19 affecting both airlines and, at least in the U.S., air traffic controllers that are compounding any weather problems. In fact, COVID-19 related staffing shortages have created their own problem with flight cancellations."

Harteveldt said the cancellations "... couldn't come at a worse time with the uncontrollable challenge of people getting sick from COVID-19. The good news is that it appears the omicron variant is less likely to send people to the hospital and people recover faster." He says that could mean sick employees return to work sooner.

He also said the slowdown in holiday travel in the next few days and lack of business travel will help too.

Travel managers he talked to said business travel will be further pushed back, "There will be fewer people traveling in the next few weeks."

Indeed, that was a sentiment echoed by Tim Jue, "If there’s an ounce of good news here is that we are entering one of the slowest times of the year for air travel historically. After the crush of delays and cancellations over Christmas and New Year’s, the airlines are going to use take advantage of much lighter passenger loads to try and get ahead of the staffing issues by disrupting as few travel itineraries as possible. Commercial air travel has never been more unpredictable as we go through this phase of the pandemic."

Sumers said, "Airlines will eventually recover. They need what everyone wants. They need the virus to recede into the background so it doesn’t wreak havoc with life every several months. They need demand to be able to plan for the future without fearing another wave will come and ruin all of their plans."

Featured image by David Slotnick
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.