Passengers line up at John F. Kennedy International Airport after airlines announced numerous flights were canceled during the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant on Christmas Eve in Queens, New York, December 24, 2021.
Dieu-Nalio Chery | Reuters
Airlines canceled more than 2,400 U.S. flights on New Year’s Day as they faced severe weather across the country and a surge in omicron infections among staff that has disrupted air travel throughout the year-end holidays.
Since Christmas Eve, airlines have canceled more than 12,000 U.S. flights and have been forced to delay thousands more, according to flight-tracking site FlightAware.
The travel woes come during what airlines expected to be among the busiest days since the pandemic began. Last year, the Transportation Security Administration screened nearly 580 million people, up 79% from 2020 but still off about 30% from 2019 before the pandemic.
Southwest Airlines had largely escaped some of the severe disruptions that affected rivals over the holidays, but scrubbed 472 flights on Saturday, 13% of its schedule, according to FlightAware. The airline suspended operations at Chicago’s airports as of 1 p.m. local time ahead of a severe winter storm.
The airline has more than 200 daily departures from Chicago Midway International Airport. An airline spokeswoman said that the flights were cut because planners were “anticipating the gusty winds and blowing snow that decades of our history operating in this airport show us will slow down the airspace and also make deicing and getting aircraft back into the air very challenging.”
While weather drove many of the cancellations on New Year’s Day, carriers including United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and JetBlue Airways have canceled hundreds of flights over the holidays, citing omicron infections among crews for many of the disruptions.
Airlines have ramped up incentives for pilots and flight attendants to pick up trips and ease staffing shortages that some executives say could last several more weeks as Covid cases continue to rise.
The Air Line Pilots Association, United pilots’ union, negotiated triple pay for aviators who pick up open trips through most of January, CNBC reported Friday. Flight attendants at United and both cabin crews and pilots at Spirit and others are also getting extra pay over the busy holiday period.
The Federal Aviation Administration earlier this week also said disruptions would likely continue.
“Weather and heavy seasonal traffic are likely to result in some travel delays in the coming days,” the agency said in a statement 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 could be reduced, which might result in delays during busy periods.”
Airlines have tried to cancel flights ahead of time so that customers don’t get stuck at the airport, overwhelming ticket counters and scrambling to change their plans. JetBlue Airways this week said it will trim 1,280 flights from its schedule through mid-January to avoid last-minute cancellations as omicron Covid infections sideline crews.
American Airlines, which operates a large hub out of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, canceled 205 flights, or 7% of its operation on Saturday, FlightAware data showed. Chicago-based United canceled 153, 7% of its mainline flights.