As Omicron Overshadows Christmas, Thousands of Flights Are Canceled

Travelers had hoped this holiday season would represent a return to relative normalcy. Instead, pilots are out and delays are piling up.

Travelers had hoped this holiday season would represent a return to relative normalcy. Instead, pilots are out and delays are piling up.

Thousands of frustrated travelers hoping to fly to Christmas celebrations faced a wave of last-minute cancellations, as a spike in coronavirus cases sidelined airline workers who had contracted the virus or had been exposed to the fast-spreading Omicron variant.

About 4,000 flights around the world scheduled for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day had been scrapped, according to FlightAware, an aviation data provider — more than 1,000 of them in the United States, disrupting a holiday season that travelers had hoped would represent a return to relative normalcy as the pandemic enters its third winter.

The cancellations forced stranded passengers in crowded airports from Atlanta to Minneapolis to Washington, D.C., to embark on frantic planes-trains-and-automobiles efforts to get where they were going. In many cases, that proved impossible.

Thursday, one of the most hectic travel days of the year, started off well, with fewer than 300 cancellations in the United States, but in the evening, carriers began announcing problems.

Delta Air Lines, which FlightAware said canceled about 160, or 8 percent, of its flights scheduled for Friday, was exhausting “all options and resources,” including rerouting and substituting planes and crews to cover scheduled flights, said Kate Modolo, a spokeswoman for the carrier.

The cancellations were caused by “a combination of issues, including weather and Omicron,” and Delta expected to cancel at least 150 more flights over the weekend, she said.

United Airlines canceled about 185 of its flights scheduled for Friday, said Maddie King, a spokeswoman for the Chicago-based carrier. The main cause: crew members calling in sick.

Another 120 cancellations were planned for Saturday. When possible, the carrier is swapping in larger planes to carry more passengers on flights that are flying, Ms. King said.

Brett Snyder, a self-described “aviation dork” who worked in the industry and now blogs at the website Cranky Flier, noted that such stopgap measures were no real match for the disruptions caused by the virus.

“You can only be so prepared when Omicron starts racing through your pilot corps,” Mr. Snyder said. “If your pilot has a cold, they can still fly. If a pilot gets Covid, they have to stay away for 10 days. That can easily snarl an operation.”

Anticipating how the Omicron variant would “exacerbate personnel shortages,” Airlines for America, a trade group, asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday to shorten the recommended isolation period for employees who test positive for Covid-19 from 10 days to “no more than five days,” with a negative test to return, as the agency has done for health care workers.

Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants union, resisted the change, telling the C.D.C. in a letter that changing protocols “should be based on science, not staffing, and they should be made by public health professionals, not airlines.”

A substantial number of the cancellations have hit carriers based in Australia and India, with some resulting from virus-related staffing issues. More than 1,500 cancellations over the past few days have taken place in China, where such disruptions were not uncommon even before the emergence of Omicron.

United Airlines officials could not say what will happen Jan. 2, a critical date when airlines expect large numbers of travelers to return home. “A lot of decisions are being made close in, so that if we don’t need to cancel a flight, we’re not going to,” Ms. King said.

A spokesman for JetBlue, which is one of the carriers supporting a shorter isolation period for workers, said that “additional flight cancellations and other delays remain a possibility as we see more Omicron community spread.”

It is a disorienting moment in the pandemic. While the highly transmissible Omicron variant now accounts for more than 70 percent of new coronavirus cases in the United States, President Biden and European leaders are increasingly reluctant to impose the kind of unpopular restrictions that were put in place to blunt the first wave of the pandemic and the Delta variant.

Moreover, there is a growing sense that such measures are either ineffective or are not worth the trouble. On Friday, officials in South Africa, encouraged by data showing that infections from the Omicron variant aren’t as severe, announced they were dropping quarantine restrictions for all but symptomatic people.

That new policy allows people who have tested positive but show no symptoms to gather with others, so long as they wear a mask and social distance.

Airlines follow strict policies aimed at keeping crew members from becoming vectors of infection, including mandatory isolation for employees exposed to the virus.

“This is going to be a problem for some time, certainly through the holidays,” Mr. Snyder said.

While cancellations throughout 2021 have been at the lowest levels since 2014, they’ve carried an outsize psychic weight, said Kathleen Bangs, a former commercial pilot who is a spokeswoman for FlightAware.

“There has been a hyper focus on airline travel because people have been so cooped up,” Ms. Bangs said. “People have a short memory, and they forgot just how clogged up airline travel was before the pandemic.”

Tramelle Howard, 32, a director at an education nonprofit, said his Delta flight on Christmas from Nashville to his home in Baton Rouge, La., was abruptly canceled on Thursday evening.

Although Mr. Howard will most likely have to miss seeing his family on Christmas because his flight had been rescheduled for Sunday, he said he was trying to make the best of the situation and planned to relax and watch Netflix instead.

“At this point, I’m accepting it,” Mr. Howard said. “It’s one of the risks that you take when you travel during the holidays, especially during a pandemic.”

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A wave of coronavirus infections has created a shortage of airline workers.Credit…David Zalubowski/Associated Press

International travel still remains well below prepandemic levels, but domestic travel has fared better, paring much of the losses from the early months of 2020, when jets were parked and airports were nearly empty.

The Coronavirus Pandemic: Key Things to Know

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The holiday season. With planned end of the year gatherings, the new Covid surge is prompting worries and cancellations. The Times asked experts to share some holiday guidance, as well as some tips on using at-home virus tests (if you can find any). Here is what to do if you test positive for the coronavirus.

The Omicron variant. The highly transmissible Covid version appears to be less severe than previous variants, according to new studies. Research also suggests many non-mRNA vaccines offer almost no defense against infection, though the Pfizer and Moderna boosters, which are mRNA-based, most likely provide strong protection.

New treatments. The Food and Drug Administration authorized in short succession the first two pill treatments for Covid-19 from Pfizer and Merck. The new drugs, which can be taken at home with a doctor’s prescription, will be available to some Covid patients who are at higher risk of becoming severely ill.

Biden’s new plan. President Biden announced new steps to confront the surge in Covid cases, including setting up new testing sites and buying 500 million rapid tests to distribute free to the public. But experts warned the measures would not stop an Omicron surge, and it could be weeks until enough tests are available.

Around the world. After infections skyrocketed to record levels in South Africa, new cases have started falling, suggesting its Omicron wave may have peaked. In Europe, the Netherlands, Britain and Denmark adopted tough restrictions, while France, Spain and Italy are taking a more measured approach.

Airlines passed their first trial of resurgent travel over Thanksgiving, with few cancellations and nearly as many passengers as in 2019. They have much less room to manage disruptions, though, than they did before the pandemic. Southwest, American and Spirit airlines all had meltdowns in late summer and fall, at times canceling half of their flights.

“You have this choppiness in trying to get back toward whatever a new normal may be,” Mr. Snyder said.

The industry’s reserve of on-call pilots is thinner than it used to be, after the pandemic ushered in a wave of early retirements and career changes. A steady stream of news about unruly customers and their viral encounters with airline staff hasn’t made it easier to recruit.

For safety and regulatory reasons, pilots typically fly only one model of plane, making it harder to juggle staff if there’s a shortage.

The setbacks were evident for travelers around the country. On Christmas Eve morning, mats, blankets and pillows lined the floors of the Twin Cities airport, where people had been forced to sleep the night before.

Catherine Lynn, a sales specialist in Watersound, Fla., said she had spent more than two hours on Friday attempting to rebook a flight for her son, who learned his flight that afternoon had been canceled when he tried to check in on the Delta app.

Ms. Lynn said she was happy that she had been able to book a new flight for her son for Friday evening, but she will have to drive to a farther-away airport to pick him up, potentially missing out on Christmas Eve dinner.

At the tail end of a line for rebooking flights, Cesar Zerrato of Elizabeth, N.J., let out a long, anguished moan that drew the attention of a few travelers ahead of him in line at Kennedy International Airport in Queens, N.Y.

Mr. Zerrato, 52, was supposed to be in Bogot?, Colombia, with family for Christmas. Instead, he was caught in an airport loop. On Wednesday his flight to Bogot? from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was canceled, and he had traveled back to the Northeast for a flight to Bogot? from J.F.K. Except now that flight had been canceled, too.

He was trying to rebook on a flight scheduled for Christmas morning.

Mr. Zerrato, still sporting on Friday the jeans and Star Wars T-shirt he had been wearing since Wednesday, described the journey as “all the time, lines, lines.”

He was back in New York, but without his luggage. He feared his bags had managed to do what he hadn’t: Get on a plane out of the country.

Sean Piccoli, Madeleine Ngo and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs contributed reporting.

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