Omicron hits airline crews, causing hundreds of holiday cancellations

Passengers line up at John F. Kennedy International Airport during the spread of the Omicron coronavirus in Queens, New York City, United States, December 26, 2021.

Moon’s Paradise | Reuters

Airlines have canceled more than 2,000 flights since Christmas Eve, as the rapid spread of the omicron variant of Covid-19 led to sick calls from flight crews.

The staff shortage has disrupted travel for thousands of customers, many of whom skipped vacation trips last year.

Airlines expect the year-end holidays to include some of the busiest days since the pandemic began. The Transportation Security Administration screened 13.6 million people in the past week through Sunday, nearly double the number from a year ago, but nearly 15% less than in 2019, before the pandemic.

Airlines including United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and JetBlue Airways cited Omicron’s spread among crews as a reason for the cancellation, while bad weather also played a role.

Other industries, including live entertainment and restaurants, have suffered from employment due to the recent spike in Covid infections.

“The number of cases of our current pilot with Covid-19 is increasing,” Brian Quigley, United’s senior vice president of flight operations, wrote Sunday in a letter to pilots, seen by CNBC. “Pilots who have developed symptoms are also in quarantine and we have a large number of pilots on our sick list.”

Shares of US airlines fell on Monday after the cancellation reports.

On Monday, airlines canceled more than 800 US flights, an improvement from 1,500 flights on Sunday, but in a sign that problems continued during the week.

United canceled 87 flights on Monday, or 4% of its main schedule, down from 118 the day before, according to flight-tracking website FlightAware. Delta canceled 64 flights on Monday, compared to 189 on Sunday. Alaska Airlines canceled 98 flights on Monday, while regional airline SkyWest dropped nearly 200 flights.

Airlines encouraged travelers to check the company’s website and apps for flight information. Carriers say they are trying to inform travelers of the cancellation as soon as possible so that customers do not make unnecessary trips to the airport.

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Airlines have ramped up their pre-holiday schedules to meet the high demand.

“During the pandemic, when our numbers rose, we were able to accommodate flying because we had a significantly reduced schedule,” United’s Quigley wrote to the pilots. “Now that we are approaching 2019 flight levels, we must do everything we can to ensure we are protected so we can live up to the schedule.

American Airlines executives last week asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reduce quarantine guidelines for fully vaccinated individuals who test positive for Covid to five days from the current 10, citing potential staff shortages and flight disruptions. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) eased its guidelines for health care workers with breakthrough Covid infections last week.

New York state health officials have reduced the quarantine period for essential workers with advanced cases of Covid to five days.

“If you meet these criteria and are eligible to return to work after 5 days of isolation, you must otherwise stay home when you are not at work and continue to take basic precautions until the end of the standard 10-day isolation period,” New York-based JetBlue said. Employee memo reviewed by CNBC.

Overtime

After staffing difficulties in previous months led to major disruptions to flights at some carriers, airlines have been offering crews extra salaries to work in peak holiday periods and meet attendance targets.

A JetBlue spokesperson said the New York-based airline entered the holiday season with the highest levels of employment since the start of the pandemic.

“Like many businesses and organizations, we have seen an increasing number of sick calls from Omicron,” he said in a statement. “Despite our best efforts, we have had to cancel a number of flights, additional flight cancellations and other delays are still possible as we see further spread of the Omicron community.”

The spokesperson added that JetBlue has scaled back its schedule in advance to avoid last-minute disruptions and has also appointed front-line operations managers if they are trained.

Their union said Spirit Airlines canceled more than 93 flights on Saturdays and Sundays and offered flight attendants double pay to pick up flights this weekend.



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