U.S. airlines canceled more than 800 flights over Christmas weekend after the rapidly spreading omicron variant of Covid infected flight crews.
There were more than 4,200 flight cancellations worldwide on Saturday, more than 870 of them in the US according to flight-tracking site FlightAware.
Omicron infections have hit other industries as well from restaurants to theater.
Several major airlines, including Delta, United and Alaska said they were forced to cancel flights on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day after employees and crew members became infected with the new coronavirus variant.
“We’re at about 230 related to Omicron for today and so far have 50 loaded for tomorrow. We’re continuing to manage everything day by day and give customers as much notice as possible so they can change their plans if needed,” United said in a statement on Saturday.
The disruptions come after airline executives said they expect some of the busiest days since the pandemic began over the year-end holidays, despite the surge in Covid infections, driven by the omicron variant. The Transportation Security Administration screened close to 2.2 million people on Thursday, up from 846,500 but shy of the more than 2.5 million who passed through TSA checkpoints two years earlier, before the pandemic.
United said it was trying to rebook as many travelers as possible. It announced most of the cancellations a day before.
U.S. airline executives this week asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials to loosen quarantine guidelines for fully vaccinated individuals who test positive for Covid to five days from the current 10, citing potential staffing shortages and flight disruptions. The CDC loosened its guidelines for healthcare workers on Thursday.
Delta canceled more than 160 flights, or 8% of its Friday schedule, citing bad weather in the Salt Lake City and Seattle area, two of its hubs, and the impact of the fast-spreading omicron variant. Delta canceled more than 170 Saturday flights while United canceled more than 130. JetBlue Airways canceled more than 70 flights on Friday, about 7% of its daily operation.
In a statement released Saturday, American Airlines said: “Our operation has been running smoothly, and unfortunately a number of COVID-related sick calls led us to make the difficult decision to precancel some flights scheduled for today. We proactively notified affected customers yesterday, and are working hard to rebook them quickly. We never want to disappoint our customers and apologize for any disruptions to their holiday travel plans.”
On Thursday, Alaska Airlines canceled 17 flights, adding that more cancellations were possible Friday “during this dynamic situation,” the airline said in a statement to NBC News.
“Delta teams have exhausted all options and resources — including rerouting and substitutions of aircraft and crews to cover scheduled flying — before canceling around 90 flights for Friday,” the airline said in a statement Thursday. “We apologize to our customers for the delay in their holiday travel plans. Delta people are working hard to get them to where they need to be as quickly and as safely as possible on the next available flight.”
More than 90% of Delta employees and more than 96% of United’s U.S. staff are vaccinated, the airlines have said.
Delta and United’s flight disruptions are far fewer than the mass cancellations some airline customers faced this summer and fall as carriers including American and Southwest grappled with staffing shortages and bad weather.
Both of those airlines offered staff extra compensation to work peak holiday trips and meet attendance goals. Southwest had just one cancellation on Friday and American had 11, according to FlightAware.