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With 1,200 more flight cancellations Monday, airlines struggle to regain footing

Carriers hope to have a chance to recover as travel eases between Christmas and New Year’s.

Travelers check in Sunday at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. (Jeenah Moon/Reuters)
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Airlines struggled to recover Monday from pockets of wintry weather and an omicron-driven surge in caseloads that triggered staffing shortages and another 1,200 flight cancellations.

The misery was shared broadly across the industry, but two smaller carriers — Alaska Airlines and SkyWest Airlines — were hit the hardest, according to aviation data provider FlightAware. The two carriers had canceled 476 flights as of Monday afternoon.

Airlines began preemptively canceling flights shortly before Christmas as employees called out sick after testing positive, mirroring a national surge in coronavirus cases. Carriers might have a chance to regain footing as travel eases between Christmas and New Year’s, but the latest figures — while down from Sunday’s peak — suggest more cancellations are likely in the days ahead.

Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, which represents crews at American Airlines, said the industry is experienced in resetting after bad weather, but the compressed timeline of so many virus cases creates a challenge that could sideline airline employees for days.

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“The system is under duress,” he said. “The weather’s going to hit, these events are going to hit. It’s a question of how you recover from it that is a sign that you’ve got your operation together.”

The wave of disruption began Christmas Eve, according to FlightAware, when 613 flights were canceled. Christmas Day saw 861 cancellations, with another 1,400 on Sunday — equivalent to nearly 7 percent of domestic flights that day.

The rounds of cancellations are the latest chapter in the airline industry’s efforts to recover from the early stages of the pandemic. After hobbling through much of 2020 with the help of tens of billions of dollars in federal aid, some airlines were left unprepared for a rapid return in demand from passengers this year.

U.S. airlines canceled hundreds of flights for a third day in a row on Dec. 26, as spiking coronavirus cases grounded flight crews. (Video: Reuters)

When Thanksgiving passed smoothly at the nation’s airports, it looked as though airlines had survived their biggest test, only for Christmas to become turbulent.

Despite the struggles, there are few signs that the latest surge in coronavirus cases and flight disruptions are deterring people from boarding planes. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) said it screened more than 2 million people Sunday, which is about 80 percent of 2019 levels.

“People want to travel,” said Henry Harteveldt, an airline analyst with Atmosphere Research Group. “We are tired of being stuck at home. We have missed being able to celebrate holidays with family or friends.”

Harteveldt said it’s difficult to blame carriers for the effects of a variant that poses a challenge to their highly vaccinated workforces. While cancellation figures appeared to be trending downward Monday, he said “no one, absolutely no one, can tell you when this will end for certain.”

United Airlines said it canceled 115 flights Monday because of staffing issues related to the virus. Spokeswoman Maddie King said half of passengers who had to reschedule arrived early or within four hours of their original landing time.

SkyWest, a regional carrier that works with major airlines on shorter routes, said weather at some of its hubs and virus cases were to blame for its cancellations. Delta Air Lines said it expected to cancel more than 200 of its scheduled 4,166 flights Monday after canceling 374 a day earlier.

“Canceling a flight is always Delta’s last resort,” said John Laughter, the carrier’s chief of operations. “The result is not only difficult for customers, but for our people who want nothing more than to take care of them — especially over the holidays. We sincerely apologize to everyone impacted.”

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Last week, airlines asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to shorten the isolation period for fully vaccinated employees from 10 days to five, which would allow crew members to resume work more quickly. The agency announced the change as the national standard on Monday.

Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert and chief medical adviser to President Biden, also suggested Monday that a vaccine mandate for domestic air travel could help control the virus.

“When you make vaccinations a requirement, that’s another incentive to get more people vaccinated,” Fauci said in an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “If you want to do that with domestic flights, I think that’s something that seriously should be considered.”

Airlines for America, a trade group, said Monday it had been informed that the Biden administration had no plans to pursue such a policy, which the industry opposes because of logistical concerns. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

While the spike in coronavirus cases has left some airlines struggling to get planes into the air, Southwest Airlines and Alaska said the more familiar problem of winter weather was affecting their operations.

Alaska Airlines said a snowstorm in the Seattle area, where it is headquartered, led to almost 250 cancellations Sunday and more Monday.

“We apologize for the inconvenience our guests are experiencing due to flight delays and cancellations,” Alaska Airlines said in a statement. “We realize it’s incredibly frustrating when travel doesn’t go as planned.”

Bob Mann, an airline industry consultant, said the number of cancellations was higher than usual but not in “meltdown” territory as some carriers experienced this year, when rising demand for travel collided with low staffing levels.

“If it’s your flight, it’s a disaster,” Mann said, adding that the industry is holding up, considering the challenges.

Omicron snarls some Christmas travel plans; 3,800 flights canceled worldwide

Problems should ease Jan. 1 with the start of a new month for staff scheduling, but Mann said the virus still presents an unknown heading into the new year. It’s hard to determine the level of uncertainties, he said, because airlines haven’t disclosed how many employees are sidelined because of positive tests.

The TSA said Monday that 1,147 of its employees had active infections, but an agency spokesman said it is operating like normal. That figure represents more than 9 percent of all coronavirus cases the TSA has logged since the start of the pandemic.

Earlier in the year, several airlines saw bad weather spiral into days-long waves of cancellations as crews were stuck out of position. Analysts and union leaders said the industry had cut staff too deeply during the early stages of the pandemic, leaving carriers vulnerable to lengthy disruptions.

There are indications in recent days that airlines have learned from those problems. Canceling flights proactively has given passengers time to adjust plans and helped to avoid the kind of chaotic scenes that played out at airports this summer and fall.

Other modes of transportation also were feeling the effects of the omicron surge Monday, with transit agencies facing staffing problems similar to those of airlines.

Many transit agencies, such as Metro in the Washington region — which already face driver and operator shortages due to national labor constraints — have made service adjustments over the past week because of workers who tested positive for the coronavirus.

Metro on Monday reported a bus driver shortage was affecting 21 routes, down from about 60 last week.

“The rise of the omicron variant has adversely affected the public transportation industry, as it has virtually all sectors of society,” said Paul P. Skoutelas, president of the American Public Transportation Association. “Anecdotally, we have heard from many of our member systems that they’ve had to modify service and routes due to a lack of operators during this new wave of the pandemic.”

Officials at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York, the nation’s largest transit system, said subway service was running on a normal schedule with few exceptions, despite a “dramatic” surge in infected employees.

“By managing our workforce, by inviting retirees to come back to work, by creating incentives for people to delay vacations during the holiday season and taking other steps, we’ve been able to continue to provide pretty solid service. The system is running,” Janno Lieber, the MTA’s acting chief executive, said during a radio interview Monday.

Amtrak officials said the nation’s passenger rail was holding up well, with no trains canceled because of the pandemic.