The Omicron variant of COVID-19 is pummeling the airline industry and foiling potential fliers’ plans during one of the busiest travel weeks of the year. While the number of air travelers has nearly doubled over last year’s pandemic-depressed lows, the highly contagious new variant of the virus has hit pilots and flight attendants, causing staff shortages and subsequent delays and cancellations.
There were 16,019 delayed flights and 3,275 canceled flights globally on Sunday, Dec. 26, according to data from FlightAware. As of 2 p.m. ET, the site was reporting another 2,711 cancelations and 9,534 delays on Monday.
Delta Air Lines, which delayed 35% and canceled 7% of its flights on Sunday, blamed winter weather and Omicron for the operational snags and said that it would continue to cancel more flights today. All of the problems, said Delta’s operations chief John Laughter, were “due to a perfect storm that includes relentless weather systems coupled with the Omicron variant surge.”
United, which delayed 31% of flights and canceled another 5% on Sunday, also blamed Omicron for staff shortages.
A JetBlue spokesperson said that the airline began the holiday weekend prepared for the surge in travel traffic, with its highest staffing level since the start of the pandemic, but ended up delaying 51% of flights and canceling 12% on Sunday because of a surge in Omicron-related sick calls.
In 2019, the year before the pandemic began, major carriers canceled just 1.9% of all scheduled flights, according to the Department of Transportation.
Airlines are bracing for more cancellations as case numbers continue to increase among their staff. “Our current pilot COVID-19 case count is on the rise,” Bryan Quigley, United’s senior vice president of flight operations, wrote Sunday in a message to pilots. “Pilots who have developed symptoms are also in quarantine and we have a high number of pilots on the sick list.”
The domestic airlines’ main trade association, citing staff shortages and flight delays, asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week to cut quarantine guidelines in half for fully vaccinated individuals who test positive for COVID, shortening the required isolation period from 10 days to five.
“As with health care, police, fire, and public transportation workforces, the Omicron surge may exacerbate personnel shortages and create significant disruptions to our workforce and operations,” Airlines for America CEO Nicholas Calio wrote in the letter on Thursday.
The CDC, which eased its quarantine guidelines for health care workers last week, did not immediately respond.
Most major airlines equip their planes with hospital-grade filtration systems, which have so far limited the spread of COVID-19 among passengers and staff on board. But Omicron is so contagious that it has increased passengers’ chances of getting sick on planes by two to three times, according to David Powell, physician and medical adviser to the International Air Transport Association, which represents 300 carriers around the world.
Omicron now accounts for 90% of all cases in the U.S., according to the CDC.
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