Omicron hits airline crews and sparks hundreds of holiday flight cancellations

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Delta Airlines and an American Airlines planes taxi away from their gate ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday at Logan International Airport in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., November 22, 2021.
Brian Snyder | Reuters

Airlines cancelled more than 300 flights Sunday as disruptions from the omicron variant of Covid-19 continued to impact crews and staffing.

Since Friday, airlines scrubbed more than 1,500 U.S. flights, disrupting travel during the busy holiday weekend. United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and JetBlue Airways cited the spread of omicron among crews as a reason for the cancellations.

Data from flight-tracking site FlightAware showed that Delta cancelled 5% of its schedule, or 131 flights on Sunday after cancelling 310 a day earlier. United had cancelled 95 flights, or 4% of its mainline schedule, down from 240 flights on Saturday. JetBlue cancelled 236 flights Saturday and Sunday.

Airlines said they expected the year-end holiday period to include some of their busiest days since the pandemic began. After staffing struggles in previous months led to flight disruptions, airlines offered crews extra pay to work peak holiday periods and meet attendance goals.

A JetBlue spokesman said the New York-based airline entered the holiday season with the highest staffing levels since the start of the pandemic.

“Like many businesses and organizations, we have seen an increasing number of sick calls from Omicron,” he said in a statement. “Despite our best efforts, we’ve had to cancel a number of flights, and additional flight cancellations and other delays remain a possibility as we see more Omicron community spread.”

The carrier was trimming its schedule ahead of time to avoid last-minute disruptions and also assigning mangers to frontline operations if they are trained, the spokesman added.

Spirit Airlines cancelled more 40 flights on Saturday and Sunday combined, fewer than other airlines, but it was offering double pay for flight attendants to pick up trips this weekend, their union said.

U.S. airline executives last week asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to loosen quarantine guidelines for fully vaccinated individuals who test positive for Covid to five days from the current 10, citing potential staffing shortages and flight disruptions. The CDC eased its guidelines for health-care workers with breakthrough Covid infections last week.

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