Some Christmas travelers face canceled flights as omicron wave hits airlines

Updated December 24, 2021, 1:31 PM ET

As if this second pandemic holiday season weren’t tough enough, many eager to see family and friends again for Christmas were told at the last minute that their flights had been canceled. One of the main reasons is that the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus has left airlines understaffed.

“The national peak of Omicron cases this week has had a direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operations,” United Airlines said in a statement to NPR.

The airline said it had canceled more than 175 flights for Friday and 69 for Saturday and was advising customers before they arrived at the airport. “We’re sorry for the disruption and are working hard to book as many people as possible and get them off for the holidays.”

Likewise, Delta Air Lines canceled about 145 flights for Friday. He said some were due to the potential bad weather, but also noted the impact of the omicron variant on his crews.

“Delta teams have exhausted all options and resources, including rerouting and substitutions of planes and crews to cover scheduled flights,” Delta said in a statement to NPR. “We apologize to our clients for the delay in their vacation travel plans.”

Delta said it was also working on re-renting travelers.

Brianne Armstrong of San Antonio says she went into ‘crisis mode’ when she saw a cancellation text from United Airlines at 2:30 a.m. as she prepared for her 6:15 a.m. flight to the Republic Dominican.

She tells NPR that after postponing a trip to Amsterdam in the fall, then canceling it altogether last week due to coronavirus, she turned to the Dominican Republic – mainly because she had few COVID-19 restrictions. Now Armstrong has a new booking on a Christmas Day flight and is hoping that won’t be canceled either.

Armstrong wonders if, after nearly two years of the pandemic, a change is needed so that each new variant does not pose another crisis. “How do we live with this, how do we plan for the future of this?” ” she says. “Are we proactive or are we reactive every time there is a new variant?” ”

According to Flightaware, nearly 3,400 flights were canceled around the world on Friday and Saturday. While more than half of the cancellations came from Chinese airlines, around 20% came from carriers based in the United States.

Germany-based Lufthansa also canceled a dozen transatlantic flights citing a “massive increase” in sick leave, although the airline said it could not confirm whether this was linked to COVID-19.

Airlines for America (A4A), an airline lobby group, wrote on Thursday to CDC director Rochelle Walensky asking for changes that could alleviate staff shortages. The letter says current guidelines provide for 10 days of flight crew isolation. But A4A wants this reduced to 5 days from the onset of symptoms for those with a breakthrough infection.

“Current medical data suggests that Omicron is 25-50% more contagious, but likely less virulent and milder symptoms, especially in people who are fully vaccinated,” the lobby wrote, noting that the latter variant appears to have a shorter incubation period and infectious period for vaccinated individuals.

The United States on Thursday shortened the COVID-19 isolation rules for healthcare workers only.

Holiday cancellations are just the latest challenge for an airline industry just starting to recover from the Thanksgiving holiday – its busiest week since the start of the pandemic. To cope with the growing number of Christmas travelers, some airlines had offered employees incentive pay to work overtime or not make themselves sick.

Despite the continuing wave of COVID-19 fueled by omicron, the Transportation Security Administration said it plans to screen some 30 million passengers from December 20 to January 3. This compares to nearly 44 million in the same period before the pandemic.

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