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Airlines say storms and omicron caused flight cancellations


San Francisco International Airport. More than 4 percent of United Airlines’ work force has tested positive for the coronavirus.

By Niraj Chokshi


In a single day over the holidays, nearly one-third of United Airlines employees called out sick at Newark Liberty International Airport, a major hub for the airline, the company’s chief executive said earlier this week.


That disclosure, in a memo to staff, helps to explain the industry’s recent struggles. Storms disrupted flights by delivering whipping winds, rains and heavy snowfall at airports nationwide, and the fast-spreading omicron virus variant compounded the havoc by sickening thousands of airline workers, leaving many travelers stranded and angry.


Overall, about 3,000 United employees — more than 4% of the airline’s workforce — have recently tested positive for the coronavirus, the company’s CEO, Scott Kirby, said in his memo. The vast majority are not working and United is cutting its flight schedule to manage the shortage.


“Our frontline teams continue to put in a tremendous effort during what I know is an incredibly challenging and stressful time — the omicron surge has put a strain on our operation, resulting in customer disruptions during a busy holiday season,” Kirby said.


United’s experience is not particularly extraordinary, and two other companies have canceled many more flights. All told, the industry has canceled more than 29,000 flights, or about 8% of all scheduled trips, since Dec. 25, according to FlightAware, a data tracking service. Many airlines say the virus is at least partly to blame.


The problems began to mount in the days before Christmas. That week, several top Delta Air Lines executives sent a letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asking it to shorten the isolation period for fully vaccinated people infected by the virus, warning that the agency’s recommendation of 10 days would leave the airline without enough workers during a crucial period.


“Similar to health care, police, fire, and public transportation workforces, the omicron surge may exacerbate shortages and create significant disruptions,” the executives, including Delta’s CEO, Ed Bastian, wrote in the Dec. 21 letter.


Cancellations topped 1,000 each day from Dec. 26, when heavy snows and bitter cold wreaked havoc on the Pacific Northwest, through Dec. 31. During that period, JetBlue executives told employees in a memo, the airline received “record-breaking sick calls.”


On Dec. 27, partly as a result of requests like the ones made by Delta Air Lines as well as some public health experts, the CDC shortened its recommended isolation time for people who have been fully vaccinated to five days.


But the change in health guidance would not give airlines much relief, at least not right away. The weather — and the flight cancellations — continued to get worse, peaking Jan. 3, when airlines canceled more than 3,100 flights, or about 13% of all scheduled trips. It wasn’t until Monday that the number of daily flight cancellations fell below 1,000. In recent days, airlines have canceled many flights proactively to get a better handle on their operations and avoid surprising customers with last-minute changes.


Bad weather and staffing problems hit different airlines at different times. Since Christmas, SkyWest Airlines, which operates shorter flights for major carriers, including United, has canceled more than 5,100 trips, more than any other airline. Southwest Airlines was close behind with more than 4,800 canceled flights, followed by United, with more than 2,800 cancellations, and Delta, with more than 2,000.


Airlines have generally provided brief public explanations, and representatives for several companies, including American Airlines, Delta and Southwest, declined to elaborate Tuesday.


In statements, SkyWest has blamed “a surge in COVID cases,” while Southwest said over the weekend that it was “experiencing an uptick” in sick calls and quarantines. The airline said Tuesday that its operations were improving as it overcame the effects of a winter storm that slammed the East Coast, including its hub at Baltimore/Washington International Airport, at the start of the month.


Like United, several airlines have started to prune flights this month to ensure they have the resources available to address the holiday disruptions and prevent further disarray. JetBlue said it would preemptively cut about 1,300 flights in the first half of January. Alaska Airlines said in a statement recently that it would slash about 1 in 10 flights planned for the month to gain “the flexibility and capacity needed to reset.”


Flight cancellations have continued this week, though the number has fallen steadily in recent days. More than 700 flights Tuesday were canceled, about 150 of them operated by United.


The vast majority of employees at major airlines are vaccinated, but while the vaccines generally protect against severe illness, they haven’t completely prevented breakthrough infections. And even those who exhibit few or no symptoms but test positive often have to isolate at least for some time.


Kirby of United told his staff that despite breakthrough infections, United’s decision to require all employees to be vaccinated or secure an exemption was working. The company was one of the first large U.S. employers to implement a vaccine mandate.


No vaccinated employees are hospitalized, and the hospitalization rate among United employees since the mandate went into effect in the fall has been far lower than that of the general population, he said. Before the requirement, more than one United employee died each week from the virus, on average. The airline has gone eight weeks without a single virus-related death among vaccinated employees, Kirby noted.


“In dealing with COVID, zero is the word that matters — zero deaths and zero hospitalizations for vaccinated employees,” he said. “And while I know that some people still disagree with our policy, United is proving that requiring the vaccine is the right thing to do because it saves lives.”

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