Rocky starts air travel until 2022 if bad weather, ommicron causes thousands of cancellations

Travelers check arrival and departure boards at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) in Atlanta, Georgia, US, on Tuesday, December 21, 2021.

Elijah Newage | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Air travel has had a chaotic start to the year.

Airlines canceled more than 5,300 U.S. flights this weekend, amid severe weather across the country and staff shortages due to Covid-19 infections.

On Sunday, airlines had canceled more than 2,500 U.S. flights in addition to 2,749 flights canceled on New Year’s Day, according to flight tracking site FlightAware.

A winter storm forced airlines to cancel hundreds of flights at Chicago’s two major airports on Saturday. The disruptions continued on Sunday with other cancellations in Atlanta, Denver and the New York City area.

In addition to the bad weather, several airlines, including JetBlue Airways, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines, blamed an increase in Covid-19 infections due to the rapidly spreading omicron variant among crews.

The travel issues come during what airlines expected to be one of the busiest days since the start of the pandemic. Last year, the Transportation Security Administration screened nearly 580 million people, up 79% from 2020, but still about 30% less than in 2019 before the pandemic.

The ommicron variant is a new challenge for carriers trying to stabilize after almost two years of pandemic.

A traveler sits in the baggage claim at LaGuardia Airport in New York on December 24, 2021.

Yuki Iwamura | AFP | Getty Images

“While we expect a full recovery in 2022, it will be a year of two halves,” JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes said in a New Year’s Day staff memo, seen by CNBC. “Our traditional off-peak periods, especially in the coming weeks after the holidays and as COVID-19 cases increase, are going to be tough.”

But Hayes said JetBlue expects an “exceptionally busy summer and plans to take advantage of this opportunity as we continue to expand our fleet and bring low fares to more routes.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week relaxed their guidelines for individuals who contract Covid to remain in isolation for up to five days from 10 days. Delta Air Lines and JetBlue executives and the US airline industry group that represents most major airlines urged the CDC in late December to shorten the recommended quarantine time, because 10 days of isolation would lead to staff shortages.

Holiday cancellations are on the rise

More than 15,000 U.S. flights have been canceled and thousands delayed since Christmas Eve, according to FlightAware.

Southwest Airlines had largely escaped some of the serious disruptions that hit rivals earlier during the holidays, but canceled 475 flights on Saturday, 13% of the schedule and 429 flights or 11% on Sunday. More than 1,600 Southwest flights were delayed over the weekend. The airline will cease operations at Chicago airports from 1 p.m. local time on Saturday due to a severe winter storm.

Southwest has more than 200 daily departures from Chicago’s Midway. An airline spokeswoman said the flights were halted because planners “anticipated the wind gusts and blowing snow, which decades of our history operating at this airport show us the airspace will slow down and also clear it of ice and back into it.” getting the air off planes very challenging.” The Southwest spokeswoman had no staffing issues.

The Federal Aviation Administration also delayed traffic at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, American Airlines’ largest hub, on Saturday due to staffing. Last week, the agency warned the disruptions would continue.

“Weather and heavy seasonal traffic is likely to lead to travel delays in the coming days,” the agency said in a statement on Friday. “Like the rest of the U.S. population, an increased number of FAA employees have tested positive for COVID-19. To maintain safety, traffic volume at some facilities may be reduced, which could lead to delays during peak periods.”

While weather was the cause of many of the New Year’s Day cancellations, airlines including United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and JetBlue Airways canceled hundreds of flights over the holidays, citing ommicron infections among crews for many of the disruptions.

Incentive salary for staff

Airlines have ramped up incentives for pilots and flight attendants to pick up trips and reduce staff shortages, which some executives say could last for several more weeks as the number of Covid cases continues to rise.

The Air Line Pilots Association, the United Pilots’ Union, has negotiated triple pay for pilots who pick up open travel for most of January, CNBC reported Friday. Flight attendants at United and both cabin crew and pilots at Spirit and others are also paid extra during the busy holiday season.

Airlines have tried to cancel flights in advance so customers don’t get stuck at the airport, overwhelming ticket counters and scrambling to change their plans. JetBlue said this week it will cut 1,280 flights from its schedule until mid-January to avoid last-minute cancellations as omicron Covid infections sideline crews.

American, which operates a major hub from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, has canceled 215 flights, or 8% of its operation on Saturday and 159 flights on Sunday, FlightAware showed. Chicago-based United canceled 175.8% of its main flights on Saturday and 111 on Sunday. Delta canceled 209 flights on Saturday and 175 on Sunday.

Airlines executives have said they expect travel demand to rise in 2022 and had prepared to expand their schedules and scramble to hire staff.

Southwest surpassed its target of hiring more than 5,700 employees, including onboard staff and expanded offerings, Greg Muccio, Southwest’s senior director of talent acquisition, wrote in a staff memo Thursday. The airline plans to have an additional 8,000 employees next year.

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