Travel problems worsen as Omicron variant hits pilots and flight attendants


Airlines continued to clean up flights on Saturday as Covid-19 infections hit pilots and flight attendants, leaving carriers short-staffed to operate busy schedules over the Christmas holiday weekend.

Airlines have canceled nearly 900 U.S. flights so far on Saturday after canceling nearly 700 on Friday. Travel could continue as people return home from the holidays – airlines canceled more than 200 flights scheduled for Sunday, according to FlightAware, a flight tracking site. Some European airlines and rail operators are also grappling with higher sickness rates among employees, the latest sign of how the rapidly spreading Omicron variant is disrupting business, even in industries where the workforce is labor intensive. The work is heavily vaccinated.

Cancellations in the United States increased among carriers, including United Airlines Holdings Inc.

UAL 0.67%

and Delta Air Lines Inc.,

DAL 0.43%

which began to preventively cut flights on Thursday. Airlines have rushed to reassign and reroute pilots and planes to cover flights, in some cases offering additional pay to encourage healthy employees to take shifts over the Christmas holidays.

New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport on Friday, when hundreds of flights were canceled across the United States


Scott Heins / Getty Images

United said 230 flight cancellations on Saturday were due to the impact of the variant. Delta, which cited both the winter conditions and the impact of Omicron, canceled about 295 major flights on Saturday, or 15% of what it had planned, according to FlightAware.

“The people at Delta are working around the clock to reroute and replace planes and crews to get customers where they need to be as quickly and safely as possible,” the airline said Friday.

The Omicron variant becomes a disruptive force as it tears itself apart across the world. Its accelerated spread hampered operations and slowed sales for some companies in just a few days.

Many travelers were aiming to avoid canceling their plans, and U.S. airports screened nearly 2.2 million people on Thursday. But airlines in the United States and Europe are struggling to maintain staffing levels as workers report sick.

Significant increase in sick leave at German national carrier Deutsche Lufthansa AG

, has exceeded its contingency plans for the holidays, a spokesperson said on Friday. This forced him to cancel some transatlantic flights from Frankfurt to cities like Boston, Houston and Washington.

The spokesperson said the airline would not comment on whether the sick leave was related to the coronavirus as it was not informed of the nature of the illnesses. “We have planned a very large buffer for the holiday period. However, this is unfortunately not enough for the high disease rate, ”the airline said.

Flight crew at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on Friday as Covid-19 left airlines understaffed


Eric Lee / Bloomberg News

Connie Tzeng was scheduled to fly from Chicago to Atlanta on Friday to visit her parents for her 30th birthday on Christmas Day. She has been tested for Covid-19, bought home tests for anyone to take, and stocked up on high-quality masks.

At around 8 p.m. Thursday night, she learned that her United flight had been canceled.

Ms Tzeng and her husband considered booking change options and found that they would either have to travel on hold or fly from Milwaukee, which would involve layovers and more time spent at airports. They have decided to accept a refund for the canceled flight and will instead spend Christmas Day eating Chinese food at home.

“It sounds like a bummer, in that a lot of the things I’ve put a lot of effort on seem a bit questionable now because we’re just staying home, even though neither my husband nor I currently have Covid “she said. noted.

During the year, several U.S. airlines faced staff shortages and other strains as they ramped up operations, and they took additional steps to protect themselves from potential collapses. holidays.

American Airlines Group Inc.,

who previously avoided disruptions, said on Saturday they decided to cancel some flights due to a number of illness calls linked to Covid-19. About 90 major US flights were canceled on Saturday morning, according to FlightAware.

“We proactively informed affected customers yesterday and are working hard to re-let them quickly,” the airline said.

JetBlue Airways Corp.

said he entered the holiday season with his highest level of staff since the start of the pandemic, but still faced problems due to a growing number of Omicron-related illness calls . A spokesperson for the airline said the carrier has had to cancel a number of flights despite its best efforts, and more cancellations and other delays are possible.

Passenger jets at Washington’s Ronald Reagan National Airport on Friday when cancellations increased.


Eric Lee / Bloomberg News

The airline, which canceled 12% of scheduled flights on Saturday, according to FlightAware, said it was trying to minimize disruption by reducing flights and giving customers as early notice as possible. The airline is also trying to bolster its workforce by deploying managers to frontline operations where possible and using incentives to encourage crews to take additional flights.

Allegiant Travel Co.

, a low-cost, Las Vegas-based carrier, has also been hit by staffing issues as cases of the Omicron variant have increased. Allegiant said it reimbursed customers whose flights were canceled and provided additional compensation of up to $ 300 and $ 150 in vouchers.

Airline customer service centers have been strained by the calls. Jason Stapleton spent an hour on hold with United on Thursday after the airline canceled his flight from California to Kansas City, offering a trip with an overnight stopover in Chicago rather than the hour-long stopover in Denver qu ‘he had planned.

“It was a complicated trip at first and they threw a huge wrench into it,” he said. He ended up booking another flight on Southwest.

A security checkpoint at Denver International Airport on Friday as the travel industry felt the effects of the Omicron variant.


David Zalubowski / Associated press

In Europe, rail service – a popular means of domestic and cross-border travel – has also been affected. British rail operators on Friday warned passengers of widespread delays, cancellations, last-minute schedule changes and rerouting of journeys that could affect connections, stretching from London and across parts of the UK

“We are seeing an increase in staff illnesses due to Covid, side effects from booster injections and seasonal illnesses,” an update on Britain’s National Rail website, a shared services site that links the passengers to rail operators across the country and helps them plan trips.

National Rail said late Christmas Eve trains were at particular risk of being canceled. Some trains were also canceled on Friday due to planned labor strikes affecting some services to Birmingham, Edinburgh and elsewhere, according to railway officials.

Eurostar, which operates at King’s Cross station in London, said it has canceled a small number of services.


Matt Dunham / Associated press

Southern Trains, which operate in the south of England, told customers it expected to have to cancel various services at short notice during the holiday period. The company said in a statement, “Like many other businesses across the country, we are experiencing an increase in employee illnesses due to Covid, side effects from booster shots and seasonal illnesses. This means that we unfortunately may have to cancel or modify services at short notice. “

A spokeswoman for SNCF, France’s state-owned railway company, said on Friday that national trains were running normally, but a small number of regional trains had been canceled and replaced with bus services. “The disturbance remains occasional, local and marginal,” she said. “Like other companies, we have been affected by the fifth wave.” She said some absenteeism was because employees tested positive or because they had been in contact with someone who tested positive.

Eurostar, the rail service that connects the UK with France, Belgium and the Netherlands, said it canceled a small number of services because fewer people were traveling.

Write to Alison Sider at [email protected]

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