Flight cancellations keep on increasing as travel disruptions from Omicron-related staff shortages and bouts of bad weather spoil passenger plans and attempt to derail a steady recovery from the pandemic.
Over 3,300 flights were canceled with more than 11,600 delays, out of which 1,625 were flying into or out of the United States on Friday, according to data from tracking website FlightAware. On Saturday, the number of cancellations reached over 4,100, with almost 2,400 U.S.-based flights—Southwest has registered 471 cancellations, American 196, Delta 186, United 150, and JetBlue 118.
Airline companies were expecting to recuperate some of the losses made during the COVID-19 shutdowns, and had prepared for the peak season with extra incentives to retain staff. But the highly-transmissible variant threw plans off track and has now emerged as the dominant strain of the virus in the country.
However, Omicron has been documented to be less symptomatic and has resulted in fewer hospitalizations. This could be one of the reasons why airline companies lobbied for reducing the number of days needed to spend in quarantine from 10 to five, which the CDC has granted.
“We expect the number of COVID cases in the northeast—where most of our crew members are based—to continue to surge for the next week or two,” JetBlue’s spokesperson said in an emailed statement to Reuters. “This means there is a high likelihood of additional cancellations until case counts start to come down.”
Besides staff shortages, inclement weather with unusually strong jet-stream winds and snowfall is one of the main reasons behind domestic and international flight disruptions. Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Denver are among the hardest hit airports for weather-related flight cancellations.
“It’s tough enough to travel in the winter just because of bad weather, but COVID and the Omicron variant are introducing new wrinkles that none of us had anticipated,” said travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt, cited by USA Today.
Travel in European countries has also been hard hit with a number of cancellations. Almost 15 percent of all flights through January have been called off as countries impose restrictions to curb the spread of Omicron. Based on data from BloomergNEF, airlines in the United States are faring better with only 3.9 percent planned cancellations for January.
Under federal law, passengers are entitled to full refunds if their flight is canceled and they opt not to take an alternate flight. Airline companies might offer travel credit, which the passenger can refuse. Refunds for cancellations can be for any reason from bad weather to staff shortages.
Many airlines give passengers a heads-up before canceling flights so that they can make alternate arrangements. JetBlue Airways had trimmed down almost 10 percent of its flights through Jan. 13. According to the company, the decision was made to help passengers prevent last-minute rescheduling hassles.