405 flights canceled today, but numbers falling; Is the worst over for airlines?

Jan 15, 2022

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Is the worst over? Well, at least things are improving in the U.S. airline space.

So far on this Saturday, there’s ‘only’ been 405 cancellations of flights within the country, or leaving or arriving into the U.S., according to flight tracking company Flight Aware as of 2 p.m. Eastern Time. Unfortunately, a major series of storms could upend the improving numbers by Sunday.

Airlines do appear to be slowly getting operations back on track now that the holiday crowds are gone and business travel remains slow. The numbers of cancellations and delays have been extraordinarily high for the past three weeks now, but that pattern began to change this past week.

Yesterday, for example, there were 525 cancellations, but that sure beats some of the days we saw at the end of December when we were clocking 2,000+ cancellations daily.

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“I should hope they would get a handle on cancellations by the second week in January,” said Brian Sumers, editor-at-large for travel site Skift.

“I think airline executives are realizing all these delays and cancellations are bad for business,” said JohnnyJet founder and editor-in-chief, John E. DiScala (aka Johnny Jet). He continued, “… with coronavirus running rampant, staffing issues and bad weather, they realize it’s not worth being so aggressive which is why they’re cutting back their schedules.”

Sumers said, “Even in boom years, this post-holiday time is a soft period for airlines. Now with omicron raging, even fewer people want to travel. There is plenty of slack in the system. Airlines have the time and resources to regroup. If airlines couldn’t get it together by now, the system would be in some real trouble.”

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

And just to be clear, airlines haven’t totally recovered. Saturday alone, both American Airlines and Southwest had still canceled 2% of their flights. There are also lots of delays. In fact, JetBlue delayed more than 15% of its flights, and I counted more than 1,000 delays across the U.S. today.

Flight cancellations Jan. 15, 2022. (Screenshot courtesy Flight Aware)
Flight cancellations on Jan. 15, 2022. (Screenshot courtesy Flight Aware)

“Travel demand in January and February is historically much slower than during other periods of the year,” said Time Jue, a San Francisco-based reporter covering airlines and travel. Jue said, “If you throw in a major surge in cases from an ongoing pandemic, that’s going to lessen demand even more, so I think that’s given the airlines a lot of slack as they figure out how to utilize the resources they do have to keep travelers going where they need to go.”

And the airlines are still struggling with sick employees.

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said last week that United had 3,000 employees out sick Tuesday alone. He also said that United was reducing its schedule “near-term” to make sure they were sufficiently staffed. That follows schedule cuts by Alaska Airlines and by JetBlue Airways. Both those airlines cut schedules in parts of January by as much as 10%.

Related: Alaska cuts 10% of its flights

Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian said 8,000 of its 75,000-strong workforce had tested positive for coronavirus in the past four weeks alone. About one out of every 13 flights were canceled over the holidays.

Still, Delta says it is back on track despite the sick calls with Bastian saying, “While the rapidly spreading omicron variant has significantly impacted staffing levels and disrupted travel across the industry, Delta’s operation has stabilized over the last week and returned to pre-holiday performance.”

He may be on to something. Saturday, Delta had only canceled nine flights.

Things aren’t perfect, however, with Delta forced to delay some 6% of its schedule, about 142 flights.

Delta confirmed to TPG that it was seeing some computer issues at Harry Reid International Airport (LAS) in Las Vegas (formerly known as McCarran International), which was leading to some of those delays.

Some analysts don’t think the airlines deserve too much credit.

Jue said:

“While cancelations may be stabilizing, I caution that flight delays still might be an ongoing issue travelers will face. Two of my recent flights were delayed about an hour each because of a lack of airline staff to do a lot of the behind-the-scenes work. There were no available ramp agents to load our bags into the belly of the plane on one of my flights. And on the other flight, we were short our lead flight attendant. So while some flights aren’t being canceled because of staffing issues, they may be delayed because of them.”

Meantime, several major storms are about to hit some of the nation’s largest population centers. Winter waivers are already being offered from several airlines for flights in more than 20 states.

And we’ve just learned that American Airlines has pre-emptively canceled some 200 flights for Sunday in Charlotte alone.

Featured image by uatp2/Getty Images.

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