Omicron continues to disrupt travel plans on Christmas weekend

More than 6,000 flights have been cancelled globally as pilots, employees call in sick after exposure to COVID-19.

A traveller sits with her luggage in an airport
A passenger sits with her luggage at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City after airlines announced numerous flights were canceled [Dieu-Nalio Chery/Reuters]

Airlines across the world have cancelled flights for a third day in a row on Sunday as crews are grounded amid surging COVID-19 infections due to the highly transmissible Omicron variant, forcing tens of thousands of Christmas travellers to change their plans.

More than 6,000 flights have been cancelled worldwide over the long Christmas weekend and thousands more were delayed, according to a tracking website, as the highly infectious Omicron variant brings holiday hurt to millions.

Globally, airlines scrapped about 2,200 flights as of Sunday morning, down from more than 2,800 from the day before, FlightAware’s data showed.

Commercial airlines canceled more than 720 flights within, into or out of the United States on Sunday, according to FlightAware’s tally.

This was slightly down from nearly 1,000 on Christmas Day but around the same level as Christmas Eve, and further cancellations were likely. In addition, more than 1,400 flights were delayed.

Pilots, flight attendants and other employees have been calling in sick or having to quarantine after exposure to COVID-19, forcing Lufthansa, Delta, United Airlines, JetBlue, Alaska Airlines and many other short-staffed carriers to cancel flights during one of the year’s peak travel periods.

“Help @united flight cancelled again. I want to get home for Christmas,” one exasperated traveller from the US state of Vermont tweeted to the airline early Saturday.

Al Jazeera’s Gabriel Elizondo reporting from New York said at most, one out of every 10 flights has been cancelled in the US, affecting many travellers as it has been a “huge travel season”.

“Numbers from the Transportation Security Administration say that on Saturday, Christmas day, 1.5 million people traveled on airlines in the US, passing through airports,” Elizondo said, adding that cases of the Omicron variant have been rising.

“Just in New York City, there were 44,000 new cases on Friday; that was the last reporting day. That’s a record for the entire pandemic,” Elizondo said.

“Health experts are saying that this new Omicron variant should probably peak in early to mid January – that’s the estimate in the US. Airlines might have to be dealing with these staff shortages for days and perhaps even a few more weeks.”

Flightaware data showed United cancelled about 200 flights on Friday and nearly 250 Saturday – about 10 percent of those that were scheduled.

A scramble to reroute pilots and planes and reassign employees was underway, but Omicron’s surge has upended business.

“The nationwide spike in Omicron cases this week has had a direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operation,” United said in a statement Friday.

“As a result, we’ve unfortunately had to cancel some flights and are notifying impacted customers in advance of them coming to the airport,” the airline said.

Similarly, Delta scrapped 310 flights Saturday and was already cancelling several dozen more Sunday, saying it has “exhausted all options and resources – including rerouting and substitutions of aircraft and crews to cover scheduled flying”.

“We apologize to our customers for the delay in their holiday travel plans,” the company said.

The cancellations added to the pandemic frustration for many people eager to reunite with their families over the holidays after last year’s Christmas gatherings were severely curtailed.

One traveler in the US wrote on Twitter on Sunday: “Love texting, [messaging] and calling Spirit Airlines to try and figure out what I’m supposed to do after they didn’t let us know our flight was cancelled until we were at the airport.”

A Twitter user named Morgan Longland tweeted at the Canadian airline West Jet on Sunday saying: “You cancelled my boyfriend’s Christmas day flight within three hours of departure… and rebooked him over 30 hours later? Merry Christmas.”

Chinese airlines accounted for the highest number of cancellations, with China Eastern scrapping more than 1,000 flights – over 20 percent of its flight plan – on Friday and Saturday, with Air China also grounding about 20 percent of its scheduled departures over the period.

‘Treacherous’ snow conditions

According to estimates from the American Automobile Association, more than 109 million Americans were scheduled to travel by plane, train or automobile between December 23 and January 2, a 34 percent increase over last year.

But most of those plans were made before the outbreak of Omicron, which has become the dominant strain of coronavirus in the US, overwhelming some hospitals and healthcare workers.

On the weather front, a major weekend storm caused whiteout conditions and closed key highways amid blowing snow in mountains of Northern California and Nevada, with forecasters warning that travel in the Sierra Nevada could be difficult for several days.

A 112km (70 miles) stretch of Interstate 80 was shut Sunday from Colfax, California, through the Lake Tahoe region to the Nevada state line. The California Department of Transportation also closed other mountain routes while warning of poor visibility and slippery conditions for drivers.

“Expect major travel delays on all roads,” the National Weather Service office in Reno, Nevada, said on Twitter. “Today is the type of day to just stay home if you can. More snow is on the way too!”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies