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Airline cancellations could get worse this weekend

<i>Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg/Getty Images</i><br/>Flight cancellations that disrupted U.S. travel over the Christmas weekend stretched into December 27 with winter storms further pressuring carriers that were already short-staffed because of spreading Covid-19 cases.
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Flight cancellations that disrupted U.S. travel over the Christmas weekend stretched into December 27 with winter storms further pressuring carriers that were already short-staffed because of spreading Covid-19 cases.

By Gregory Wallace, CNN Business

Airline cancellations are surging Thursday for a seventh straight day and threaten to throw off weekend flights home for holiday travelers.

The spate of cancellations means tens of thousands of travelers are attempting to rebook as the Transportation Security Administration expects 10 million more people to pass through airport screening between now and the end of the day Monday. Heavy holiday travel is colliding with a spike in coronavirus cases among aviation industry employees and weather issues.

In all, the aviation tracking website FlightAware recorded more than 8,800 US flight cancellations since Christmas Eve, including more than 1,000 on Thursday and nearly 700 already cut from Friday and Saturday schedules.

Crew shortages

The crew shortages weren’t supposed to happen. Airlines have been staffing up and bringing back employees from cost-cutting leaves of absence.

Airline payrolls numbered 718,000 in October, the most recent data available from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, up from 669,000 a year earlier.

But the industry says the omicron variant of the coronavirus is sidelining its teams, and successfully asked federal officials to cut back the guidelines for isolation and quarantine.

Please rebook

As airlines grapple with crews unavailable for work or stranded out of place, several are signaling the disruptions will persist.

Alaska Airlines is pleading with passengers who do not need to travel this week to rebook.

“We strongly urge flyers with non-essential travel scheduled before January 2, 2022, to consider changing their travel to a later date using our flexible travel policy,” the airline said. “With more snow expected and limited seats available during an already busy holiday week, we’re not able to re-accommodate most guests for at least three days.”

The hold time for customer service calls at Alaska are 20 hours and it says callers without urgent issues should wait “until next week.”

It canceled 14% of Thursday flights and said winter weather is causing it to cancel one out of every five flights at its primary hub in Seattle to “allow for the additional time it takes to deice aircraft.”

Mounting cancellations

JetBlue Airways is cutting 1,280 flights from its schedule over the next two weeks to “give our customers give as much notice possible to make alternate plans and reaccommodate them on other flights.” It canceled about 17% of flights on Thursday, FlightAware said.

The airline thought earlier this week that the number of crewmember callouts due to the coronavirus was under control. It canceled only two flights on Christmas and one flight the next day, Sunday, because of covid. But now it is seeing “a surge in the number of sick calls from Omicron”

Budget leisure carrier Allegiant Air canceled nearly 100 flights, or 18% of its schedule, on Thursday, according to FlightAware. Allegiant warned customers telephone hold times were “unusually long.”

United Airlines canceled 200 flights, or around 8% of its Thursday schedule, which FlightAware data show is about its average since Christmas Eve. United told CNN it is “managing this day by day.”

Delta Air Lines canceled 3% of its Thursday schedule but warned that storms headed for Salt Lake City and Detroit hubs to complicate travel “in the coming days.”

Severe weather

The weather impacts aren’t limited to snow and ice. The Federal Aviation Administration acknowledged the jet stream weather pattern over the US was “stronger than usual” on Tuesday, reaching 170 knots in the air above the Great Lakes. A strong jet stream can slow west-bound travel and speed up east-bound flights at the high altitudes where aircraft operate.

Meanwhile, Southwest Airlines told CNN it has “yet to see any impact on our operation” from coronavirus illnesses but is “closely monitoring this.” President and Chief Operating Officer Mike Van de Ven told employees in a memo shared with CNN that Southwest carried 3 million passengers last week and canceled less than 1% of flights.

Southwest canceled 14 flights on Thursday and American Airlines canceled only 4, according to FlightAware — both less than 1% of each carrier’s schedule.

The Transportation Security Administration told CNN it has “adequate staff to cover flight schedules and passenger volumes.”

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