Airlines have canceled thousands of flights in recent days as the industry struggled to weather the holiday hangover.
Bad weather and coronavirus outbreaks among workers continued to disrupt schedules in the United States, but airlines have also canceled many recent flights in advance so they can correct course on a traditionally slow travel time without surprising customers with last-minute cancellations.
According to FlightAware, a data tracking service, about 5,000 flights were canceled from Friday through Sunday, with daily cuts steadily declining over that period. Southwest Airlines has suspended more than 1,000 flights, more than any other airline. SkyWest Airlines, which operates flights for several major airlines, and United Airlines have canceled more than 500 flights each.
The unrest started before Christmas, caused by bad weather in the West and staff shortages due to virus outbreaks among employees. Snowfall in the northeast continued to wreak havoc at major airport hubs across the country into the first weekend of this month.
“Given the continued increase in Covid cases and related sick leave, we have been working with each of our key partners to proactively reduce our January schedules,” SkyWest said in a statement. The airline operates flights for United, Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and Alaska Airlines and said the withdrawal is intended to “ensure we can adequately staff our remaining flights as we work towards recovery in the coming weeks.”
After canceling high-fare flights during the holiday season, JetBlue Airways said it would preemptively cancel about 1,300 flights in the first half of January. Alaska said in a statement last week that it would cancel about one in 10 scheduled flights for the month to “gain the flexibility and capacity needed to reset”.
As in many other industries, airlines also have to deal with employees who call in sick at a high rate as the strain of the Omicron virus spreads at an astonishing rate.
“It was one of the toughest operational environments we’ve ever faced,” Allison Ausband, Delta’s chief customer experience officer, said in a statement last week apologizing to customers for the disruption.
To make up for the staff shortage, many carriers have started offering extra pay to those who would otherwise not be working. Southwest, for example, said last week that for most of the month it offered dual pay to employees who picked up extra shifts, incentives available to employees throughout the operation, including ground staff, flight attendants, customer service representatives, flight planners and maintenance technicians.
The chaos comes at a frustrating time for the industry, which is gearing up for a significant recovery this summer. That recovery rests largely on the hope that by then the pandemic will be largely under control and that people will be more willing to travel internationally and for work.