Thousands of travelers are having their holiday plans disrupted owing to a combination of reduced staffing blamed on the surge of the omicron variant of COVID-19 and wintery weather resulting in the cancellation and delay of thousands of airline flights across the country.
According to FlightAware, between December 24 and 10 a.m. PT on Monday, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways, and United Airlines were forced to cancel or delay more than 2,466 flights.
FlightAware’s Misery Map, which depicts flight disruptions, showed the largest numbers of issues were in the airline hub cities, with Denver, Chicago, and Seattle leading the pack.
A good portion of the flights were canceled because the airlines do not have the flight crews to work them. This is, in part, because of the number of breakthrough cases of COVID. If a person tests positive for the virus, the airline protocols require the person to quarantine for 10 days.
The week before Christmas, airline officials beseeched the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reduce the required quarantine period from 10 to five days. The reduction has already been adopted by the healthcare industry.
The surge of the omicron variant is the second part of a one-two punch suffered by the airlines in the staffing department. In March 2020, when airline travel decreased by 90 percent, many airlines trimmed their payroll costs by offering early retirement to senior flight crews. Many pilots and flight attendants took advantage of the offer. These crew members have yet to be replaced although airline travel is once again on the upswing, with several airline hubs reporting pre-pandemic levels of travelers passing through their gates.
Mother Nature has also thrown a wrench in airline schedules, as a winter storm has crippled the Pacific Northwest with snow, ice, freezing rain, and temperatures in the teens. The cities in the Seattle metro area are primarily built on hills, and the municipalities do not have a significant number of snowplows or sand trucks or the staff to operate them, this makes getting to and from the airport—and any place else—difficult if not impossible.
Heading into the 2021 holiday season, airline hub airports were already reporting passenger traffic at pre-pandemic levels on normal travel days.