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Perfect storm: Omicron and weather lead to more cancellations; How long will it last?

Jan. 08, 2022
5 min read
Perfect storm: Omicron and weather lead to more cancellations; How long will it last?
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Major cancellations and delays dragged on Saturday as airlines try to reset after more than two weeks of operational meltdowns.

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Staffing shortages, winter storms and the spread of the super contagious omicron variant of COVID-19 has made a mess of airline schedules for weeks now.

By 3 p.m. on Saturday, there were more than 1,200 cancellations in the U.S. with another 1,300 delays.

"We're in unprecedented times and I’ve never seen anything like this in my 20-something year career," said John E. DiScala, the founder and editor-in-chief of Johnny Jet.

That sentiment was familiar to all the industry insiders I spoke with. Tim Jue, a San Francisco-based reporter covering airlines and travel, said, "I cannot remember a time when the airline industry as a whole faced such a staffing crisis where there just are not enough people around to do the work. This cuts across every airline, every hub airport in America, and many roles above and below the wing. No carrier has been unscathed by this latest chapter of the pandemic."

(Screenshot courtesy Flight Aware)

Alaska became the latest carrier to announce it was proactively cutting 10% of its flights for January in an attempt to restore regular operations. JetBlue which cut another 14 flights Saturday had previously announced similar measures.

According to flight tracking company Flight Aware, Alaska has canceled 17% of its scheduled flights. Horizon cut 2% of its flights Saturday. Skywest scrapped 8% of its flights. Skywest and Horizon operate flights for Alaska.

Related: 1 in 13 flights was canceled during the holidays

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Across the major carriers, Southwest canceled 318 flights (or 10% of its schedule), United cut 7% or 149 flights and American Airlines slashed 4% of its flights. Delta Air Lines only canceled 10 flights on Saturday according to Flight Aware.

Still, it's an improvement over Friday when airlines canceled more than 2,600 flights as a snowstorm hit the Northeast. New York and Boston saw the highest numbers of canceled flights on Friday.

Unfortunately, it's not likely to get better anytime soon. Already, there are more than 630 cancellations for Sunday including 221 from Southwest and another 163 from United.

"I suspect things will continue to get worse before they get better, said Jue, "The country is not at the peak of this major surge yet, and I think we’re going to see more cancelations in the days and weeks to come as infections keep climbing."

Brian Sumers told TPG, "Because of illness, airlines are so short-staffed they cannot possibly fulfill the schedules they sold to the public. The question of how this cancellation wave will end might be better posed to an epidemiologist. Airlines can get back to normal -- or near-normal -- when society gets there."

Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and president of Atmosphere Research, told TPG, "We have never seen cancellations of this magnitude occur for as long as we are seeing now."

Harteveldt added, "What's noteworthy is that these cancellations aren't isolated to a particular airline or airport. Bad weather can affect multiple airlines, but COVID-19 is causing staffing shortages at nearly every airline. Unfortunately, no one knows for certain when COVID-related cancellations will end."

Brian Sumers, editor-at-large for the travel site Skift told me, "I have not seen a sustained industry-wide meltdown like we have watched in the past three weeks. But why would it? This is a once-in-a-century pandemic."

DiScala said, "I think it’s gonna continue like this through the end of the month but once omicron runs through everybody and the winter weather starts moving out things will get better. I have friends who are pilots that had omicron a week or so ago and are already back at work."

I asked Harteveldt how the airlines had done during the holidays.

He said, "Airlines are trying to do the best job they possibly can. I give airlines that were able to pre-cancel flights during the past two and half weeks credit for doing so ... airlines have done the best they can to cope with a situation that isn't just fluid but chaotic."

Sumers is hopeful, however:

"To be sure, I don't think this will be the status quo for all of 2022. Things should improve soon. The December holidays are one of the busiest travel periods of the year. January is generally not as busy. It certainly isn't this year, with many business travelers staying home. When demand is soft, airlines can have operational problems and still get passengers where they need to go."

Jue said, "It may be rough-going right now for air travel, but I think we’ll be in better shape once we start to see COVID numbers in the U.S. go down."

Sumers did warn readers that the "next big test for airlines likely will be around Easter, when leisure travelers again take to the skies, en masse. Let's hope the COVID-19 situation is better by then. If not, we could be in for a similar situation."

Featured image by Getty Images
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.

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Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
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The Capital One Venture X card is one of the best all-round travel credit cards ever launched. Not only is it offering a tremendous welcome bonus, but cardholders can earn tons of miles on everyday spending and receive a 10,000-mile anniversary bonus to boot. Its annual fee is $395, but cardholders can count on up to $300 in statement credits toward travel booked through Capital One Travel each year and other valuable benefits like access to Priority Pass lounges and Capital One’s own growing family of airport lounges.

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  • Excellent welcome offer worth 75,000 miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months.
  • Up to $300 in annual travel statement credits toward bookings make through Capital One Travel.
  • 10,000 bonus miles (worth $100 toward travel) each account anniversary.

Cons

  • The $395 annual fee might be expensive for some, but this card’s benefits provide much more value than that.
  • If you don’t travel frequently, this might not be the best card for you.
  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Receive up to $300 back annually as statement credits for bookings through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of options
  • Get 10,000 bonus miles (equal to $100 towards travel) every year, starting on your first anniversary
  • Earn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on all other purchases
  • Unlimited complimentary access for you and two guests to 1,300+ lounges, including Capital One Lounges and the Partner Lounge Network
  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
  • Use your Venture X miles to easily cover travel expenses, including flights, hotels, rental cars and more—you can even transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
  • Named editors' choice for "Best New Credit Card of 2021" by The Points Guy
  • Earn 10 miles per dollar when you book on Turo, the world's largest car sharing marketplace, through May 16, 2023