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More Than 500 U.S. Flights Canceled Christmas Eve Amid Omicron Staffing Shortages

Topline

Airlines canceled more than 600 flights within, into or out of the U.S. on Friday, according to FlightAware, with another 400 canceled on Christmas Day, largely due to staffing shortages caused by the omicron coronavirus variant, disrupting travel plans for some at one of the busiest times of the year for the airline industry.

Travelers at Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles on December 20.


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Key Facts

As of 4 p.m. Eastern time Friday, 627 U.S. flights had been canceled, according to FlightAware, out of 2,338 cancellations worldwide; an additional 2,146 U.S. flights have been delayed.

United Airlines has canceled 188 U.S. flights, the most of any U.S. carrier, followed by Delta Air Lines with 167 cancellations and JetBlue with 73.

The most affected U.S. airport is Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, according to FlightAware, where 42 outbound flights and 35 inbound flights have so far been canceled Friday amid a surge of Covid-19 cases in New Jersey and nearby New York City.

The number of cancellations has shot up from Thursday night, when United canceled 112 flights for Friday and Delta preemptively canceled approximately 90.

Airlines have cited the omicron variant as the primary reason behind the cancellations, along with inclement weather, with Lufthansa saying in a statement Friday that despite implementing a “large buffer” for the holiday season, it “was not sufficient due to the high rate of people calling in sick.”

Delta said in a statement Thursday it had made the decision to cancel flights only after the airline “exhausted all options and resources — including rerouting and substitutions of aircrafts and crews.”

Crucial Quote

“The nationwide spike in omicron cases this week has had a direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operation,” United said in a statement Thursday. “As a result, we’ve unfortunately had to cancel some flights and are notifying impacted customers in advance of them coming to the airport.”

What To Watch For

Air travel will also be disrupted on Saturday, with FlightAware showing 420 U.S. flights have already been canceled, out of 1,487 cancellations worldwide. “We are really managing this day by day,” United spokesperson Joshua Freed told the New York Times. “There may be some more flight cancellations for Saturday. It’s possible.” Trade association Airlines for America asked the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday to shorten its guidance for how long people with Covid-19 should quarantine after developing symptoms from 10 days to five, in order to allow those infected to get back to work sooner. The CDC on Thursday reduced its recommended quarantine period for healthcare workers amid staffing shortages at hospitals.

Tangent

Dr. David Powell, medical advisor to the International Air Transport Association, told Bloomberg Tuesday the highly infectious omicron variant may make air passengers two to three times more likely to contract Covid-19 on an airplane than with previous strains of the coronavirus variant. That being said, Powell noted planes are a “very high-flow airflow environment,” and their ventilation systems mean flights are likely still “less conducive to [Covid-19] spread than other indoor environments.”

Key Background

The flight cancellations come as air travel this holiday season has been expected to rebound from a slump in 2020 to nearly pre-pandemic levels, even despite spiking Covid-19 cases due to omicron. AAA projected that 6.4 million people would travel by air between December 23 and January 2, which would be a 184% increase over 2020 but still 12.9% below 2019. United CEO Scott Kirby said Monday the airline had not seen many cancellations for U.S. flights despite the omicron variant, and the Transportation Security Administration reported the number of people that traveled through its security checkpoints on Wednesday actually exceeded pre-pandemic levels—with nearly 2.1 million travelers, up from 1.9 million the same day in 2019. Airlines are not the only industry to suffer staffing shortages due to the omicron variant, which has also spurred the cancellation of Broadway shows and sports games and shuttered restaurants as workers contract Covid-19. 

Further Reading

United Cancels Over 100 Christmas Eve Flights, Citing Staff Shortages Due To Omicron Surge (Forbes)

Air Travel Just Topped Pre-Pandemic Levels Despite Looming Covid Fears (Forbes)

Holiday Travel Amid Omicron: Flights Projected To Hit Pandemic-Era Highs As United CEO Says People Aren’t Canceling (Forbes)

Airplane Passengers At Least Twice As Likely To Catch Covid-19 Because Of Omicron, Airline Trade Body Says (Forbes)

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