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US flight cancellations hit a record level as COVID thins crews amid severe weather

By Niraj Chokshi


Airlines canceled more than 2,700 flights across the United States by Saturday evening, by far the worst day in the industry’s weeklong struggle with bad weather and crew shortages.


The cancellations mounted amid reports of heavy snowfall across much of the nation’s midsection.


The industry canceled thousands of trips, about 5.7% of all scheduled flights, in the week ended Friday, according to FlightAware, an aviation data provider. Every major U.S. carrier made deep cuts Saturday, too. Nearly half the cancellations were concentrated at Chicago’s two airports, where heavy snow and strong winds were expected throughout the day into Sunday.


Southwest Airlines said it planned to suspend operations at those airports Saturday afternoon. The airline cut over 470 flights nationwide, more than any other U.S. carrier, accounting for about 13% of its schedule.


“As always, we have safety top-of-mind and, for us, that also means keeping people from driving to airports to wait on long-delayed flights whenever we can avoid that,” Southwest said in a statement.


Delta Air Lines scrubbed 9% of scheduled trips, while American and United Airlines each cut 7%. In a statement, United, which has its headquarters in Chicago, said that the nationwide spike in coronavirus cases had affected its ability to staff flights, too.


The cancellations contribute to a disappointing time for the industry, both to the end of the holiday season and to a convulsive year characterized by revival and setbacks. Widespread vaccinations early in 2021 gave way to a summer travel boom that was then stifled somewhat by the delta virus variant. The industry recovery continued to build again in the fall, only to be slowed again by the omicron variant.


Millions of people have been flying daily within the United States this holiday season. But passenger traffic is still down 15% or more from 2019 on most days, according to Transportation Security Administration data. Despite the recent turmoil, U.S. carriers canceled 1.5% of scheduled flights in 2021 compared with 1.6% in 2019, according to FlightAware.

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