1,000 Flights Canceled Thursday as Airlines Struggle to Recover From Omicron, Weather Disruption

(Washington Post) -
The departures board at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2021, in Arlington, Va.  (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Elevated numbers of flight cancellations stretched into another day Thursday, as carriers continued their scramble to get travelers to their destinations amid a coronavirus spike that has led to staffing shortages and weather that has slowed operations – and in some cases left crews stuck in the wrong cities.

As of Thursday morning, more than 1,000 flights within, into and out of the United States had been canceled for the day, according to flight tracking website FlightAware. If airline operations follow the pattern of recent days, the number is likely to grow. According to FlightAware, 540 flights scheduled for Friday already have been canceled.

After high-profile breakdowns over the summer and fall, concerns arose about whether carriers would be able to cope with passenger volumes during the winter seasons to end the year. Airlines passed their first major test over November – but December has proved to be a different story, leaving thousands of frustrated air travelers unable to return home.

While cancellations are widespread, United Airlines remains the hardest-hit among major carriers, with 190 flights canceled Thursday, roughly 8% of its schedule. JetBlue, which announced Wednesday it would reduce the number of flights it offers through Jan. 13, had 175 flights canceled as of Thursday morning. Regional carrier SkyWest also continued to be plagued by operational difficulties.

Kerry Tan, an associate professor of economics and an air travel expert at Maryland’s Loyola University, said that while weather is often a factor at this time of year, staffing issues have proved to be an even greater challenge for carriers.

“The weather aspect is out of their hands,” said Tan. “What they can control is staffing, but like many companies out there, there are huge staffing issues. There are just not enough workers to meet the demand.”

The first signs of trouble emerged just before December 25 when airlines, citing staffing issues resulting from the more easily transmissible omicron variant, began preemptively canceling flights. Through December 25 the number of cancellations multiplied. On December 24, about 613 flights were canceled, according to FlightAware. On December 26, the number had ballooned to more than 1,400. In the past week, airlines have canceled nearly 8,000 flights.

In a shift that could help ease staffing shortages at airlines and other business, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week updated its guidance on the isolation period for those who test positive for the coronavirus, saying they need to quarantine for only five days rather than 10.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said data indicates that most transmission occurs early in the course of a person’s illness, typically in the one to two days before symptoms appear and two to three days afterward. Health officials also recommended that those exposed get tested five days after their exposure.

The move followed a push by the airline industry to change the guidelines. In a Dec. 21 letter to Walensky, Delta Air Line’s chief executive, Ed Bastian, wrote that without such a change, “the 10-day isolation for those who are fully vaccinated may significantly impact our workforce and operations.”

In making his case, he cited omicron’s shorter incubation period and the fact that at Delta, more than 90% of employees are vaccinated and are required to wear masks.