U.S. airline cancellations have created a travel ‘flightmare’—but it’s even worse in Asia

December 28, 2021, 1:36 PM UTC

U.S. airlines were not the only ones struggling to keep planes flying over the Christmas weekend.

Between Dec. 24 and Dec. 27, around 8,800 flights were canceled around the world, owing to a combination of COVID controls, bad weather, and staff shortages. Cancellations are continuing past the holiday weekend—over 2,000 additional flights have been canceled on Tuesday, according to FlightAware, a company that provides real-time tracking of flight data.

Yet while U.S. flight cancellations were caused by staff shortages and bad weather, flight cancellations elsewhere in the world have been driven by tough COVID policies—especially in China, which is pursuing tough controls on domestic movement and international travel as part of its COVID-zero approach.

Chinese airports like Beijing Capital International Airport, Shanghai Pudong International Airport, and Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport were among those seeing the most flight cancellations worldwide, overtaking Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Tuesday. Chinese airlines like China Eastern, Air China, and Shenzhen Airlines have canceled hundreds of flights among them.

China’s flight disruptions are not caused by Omicron but, in fact, by an outbreak of the older Delta variant. Authorities are currently battling a community outbreak in the Chinese city of Xi’an, which has seen 850 COVID cases in the past two weeks. Xi’an’s 13 million residents were told to stay at home on Dec. 22 in the largest such move by Chinese authorities since Wuhan was placed on lockdown in early 2020. 

Asian controls

Governments across Asia are reimposing controls on travel as the Omicron variant becomes dominant around the world. Singapore has frozen sales of plane tickets for its vaccinated travel lanes, which allows vaccinated travelers from 24 countries to fly into the country without needing to quarantine. Thailand has also paused its quarantine-free travel scheme in the wake of Omicron.

But China and Hong Kong have gone the furthest in imposing tough rules for flights entering the country.

Hong Kong has also imposed strict rules regarding flights as Omicron spreads around the world. Hong Kong now bans flight routes for two weeks if four COVID cases are caught within seven days of landing. Flights from New York, London, Doha, and Seoul have already been affected. Aircrew are also subject to strict quarantine rules on entering the city (though the requirements are weaker than what most international travelers must go through). On Tuesday, the South China Morning Post reported that the government would mandate three days of hotel quarantine for incoming cargo aircrew.

Airlines are scaling back their flights to Hong Kong to protect their crew from being subject to Hong Kong’s strict quarantine rules. After reports that British Airways crew were being quarantined in a government facility, the airline canceled all its flights to Hong Kong until March. Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s flagship airline, canceled almost half its planned flights in December after the city announced tougher quarantine rules for aircrew, and will scale flights back even further in January.

Knock-on effects for U.S. flights

Airlines in the U.S. have been struggling to keep flights running amid the country’s widespread Omicron outbreak, which knocked out flight crews and ground personnel across the country. United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and JetBlue all pointed to staffing shortages as a major reason why flights were canceled over the holiday weekend. In a statement, United said that the surge in Omicron cases “has had a direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operation.”

Shortages were caused by official guidelines that recommended 10 days of isolation upon testing positive. These guidelines have since been reduced to five days owing in part to the disruptions resulting from lengthy isolation periods. Delta CEO Ed Bastian had asked for isolation time to be reduced in a letter sent to CDC director Rochelle Walensky.

Yet even if U.S. airlines are able to restore their operations and regain some lost ground in the wake of the holiday travel season, they may still struggle to keep international flights running.

A recent Delta flight from San Francisco to Shanghai was turned back mid-flight, which the airline claimed was due to new cleaning mandates imposed by Beijing. Delta argued that these mandates would have extended ground time and made the flight “not operationally viable.”

And things may not get back to normal anytime soon, with Delta noting that its service to China “remains very fluid” in the wake of its aborted flight to Shanghai.

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