NEW YORK, NY — As pre-pandemic level crowds hit the airports for the holidays, some major U.S. airlines were forced to proactively cancel more than 600 Christmas Eve and Christmas Day flights due to the fast-spreading omicron variant of Covid-19, which drew down staffing levels.
As of early evening Friday, Delta canceled 170 flights on Friday, representing about 9% of its total schedule, and 188 for Christmas Day, according to the flight-tracking website FlightAware. United called off 189 flights on Friday, about 10% of its schedule, and 140 on Saturday. Planned cancellations were set to continue into Sunday.
Not all airlines said Covid was disrupting their travel schedules. American Airlines said it had “nothing to report,” while Southwest Airlines said “things are running smoothly.”
Operational snags for some of the airlines are coming as millions are still flying in spite of rising coronavirus cases. The Transportation Safety Administration says it screened 2.19 million people at airports across the country on Thursday, the highest figure since the uptick in holiday travel started a week ago.
"The nationwide spike in Omicron cases this week has had a direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operation," said a United memo.
United added that it was "notifying impacted customers in advance of them coming to the airport," according to a company statement. "We're sorry for the disruption and are working hard to re-book as many people as possible and get them on their way for the holidays."
Delta said its "flight cancellations are due to a combination of issues, including but not limited to, potential inclement weather in some areas and the impact of the Omicron variant."
"Delta teams have exhausted all options and resources -- including rerouting and substitutions of aircraft and crews to cover scheduled flying -- before canceling flights for Friday," Delta said in a statement. "We apologize to our customers for the delay in their holiday travel plans. Delta people are working hard to get them to where they need to be as quickly and as safely as possible on the next available flight."
Airlines for America (A4A), the group that lobbies on behalf of all major U.S. airlines, is calling on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to shorten the quarantine time for fully vaccinated individuals, saying the omicron surge may create "significant" disruptions.
"The omicron surge may exacerbate personnel shortages and create significant disruptions to our workforce and operations," Nick Calio, A4A's CEO, said in a letter on Thursday to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky.
Calio proposed the isolation period to be shortened to five days from symptom onset for breakthrough infections.
"In turn, those individuals would be able to end isolation with an appropriate testing protocol," Calio wrote.
The letter comes after Delta, an A4A member, also asked for isolation periods for fully vaccinated individuals to be shortened.