Airlines scrap 1,000 U.S. holiday-weekend flights as COVID bites

Justin Bachman and Will Davies
Bloomberg News (TNS)
Travelers walk to a security check point at LaGuardia Airport in New York on Dec. 24, 2021. On Christmas Eve, airlines, struggling with the omicron variant of COVID-19, have canceled over 4,000 flights globally. (Yuki Iwamura/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

Air carriers scrapped more than 1,000 U.S. flights for one of the busiest weekends in the year, stranding passengers at airports during the Christmas holiday, as surging COVID infections led to crippling air-crew shortages.

The global tally exceeded 4,300 trips for Friday through Sunday, according to data tracker China Eastern had the most cancellations, and the most-affected airport was in the Chinese city of Xi’an, where the Beijing government cracked down under its COVID Zero policy after an outbreak.

Delta Air Lines Inc.’s 405 cancellations for the holiday weekend led the U.S. industry, FlightAware data showed, followed by United Airlines Holdings Inc., with 356 flights erased from its holiday itineraries. JetBlue Airways Corp. chopped 73 flights on Friday, or 7% of its schedule, according to FlightAware.

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The travel snarls underscored the reach of the omicron COVID variant that is driving U.S. case counts higher, increasing nearly sixfold in only a week to become the dominant domestic strain. United said in an email Thursday that a jump in omicron was limiting the availability of flight crews and ground personnel. Delta attributed its disruptions to a mix of reasons, including COVID.

Robert Mann, a former American Airlines executive who is now a consultant, said that in an industry that operates about 20,000 daily flights, Friday’s upheaval was clearly unwelcome for passengers but less than might have been expected from a day of foul weather at a single hub.

“What’s left in the balance is understanding or forecasting what the sick-call rate is going to be across the day prior to a holiday and what that does to your ability to run the operation reliably,” Mann said in a telephone interview.

The holidays are among the heaviest times for travel. The Transportation Security Administration was estimating Dec. 22 and 23 would be the busiest pre-Christmas travel dates nationally and locally, with Jan. 2 and 3 the most crowded for post-holiday travel. The cancellations left some passengers waiting at airports across the U.S. just ahead of the Christmas holiday celebrations.

“A combination of issues, including but not limited to inclement weather in some areas of the country and the impact of the omicron variant, are driving cancellations and potential delays,” Delta said in an emailed statement Friday. JetBlue didn’t immediately respond to emailed questions about the cause of its cancellations.

Delays added to holiday travelers’ woes in Canada and the U.S. Four North American carriers — Air Canada, JetBlue, WestJet and regional unit WestJet Encore — had at least 20% of their Friday flights run late, according to FlightAware.

Globally, cancellations ran highest at Xi’an Xianyang International Airport, in the western Chinese city where the government punished local officials for failing to curb an outbreak that led to the biggest lockdown since COVID emerged in Wuhan. Nearly a third of the flights departing from the airport were canceled Friday, while about 25% were canceled on Christmas Day, according to FlightAware.

Elsewhere, British discounter EasyJet said it had canceled some flights between the U.K. and France and Germany for the rest of December, following the introduction of restrictions on U.K. travelers to those countries.