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Another Wave of Canceled Flights Blamed on Omicron Variant and Bad Weather Closes Out 2021 Travel Year

Another Wave of Canceled Flights Blamed on Omicron Variant and Bad Weather Closes Out 2021 Travel Year

To paraphrase the Counting Crows, it’s been a long December, but there was no reason to believe this year would be better than the last.

The explosion of new COVID19 cases due to the highly transmissible Omicron variant has brought the nation to a virtual standstill as America posted its highest case numbers of the pandemic this week. And as 2021 comes to close, holiday travelers are finding themselves stranded in airports across the country as the virus is causing record cancellations blamed on staffing shortages and the extreme winter weather.

A man looks at the departures board at Salt Lake City International Airport Friday, Dec. 24, 2021, in Salt Lake City. At least three major airlines say they have canceled dozens of flights because illnesses largely tied to the omicron variant of COVID-19 have taken a toll on flight crew numbers during the busy holiday travel season. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

More canceled flights frustrated air travelers on the final day of 2021 and appeared all but certain to inconvenience hundreds of thousands more over the New Year’s holiday weekend, even as cities were either canceling or seriously reducing planned celebrations to ring in 2022.

By early afternoon Friday on the East Coast, airlines had scrubbed more than 1,400 U.S. flights — about 6% of all scheduled flights — and roughly 2,900 worldwide, according to tracking service FlightAware. That pushed the total U.S. cancellations since Christmas Eve above 9,000, with the peak of 1,520 on December 26th. Led by United and JetBlue, airlines have already canceled more than 1,000 U.S. flights on Saturday and nearly 500 on Sunday.

The disruptions come just as travel numbers climb higher going into the New Year’s holiday weekend. Since Dec. 16, more than 2 million travelers a day on average have passed through U.S. airport security checkpoints, an increase of nearly 100,000 a day since November and nearly double last December.

Since March 2020, U.S. airlines have received $54 billion in federal relief to keep employees on the payroll through the pandemic. Congress barred the airlines from furloughing workers but allowed them to offer incentives to quit or take long leaves of absence – and many did. The airlines have about 9% fewer workers than they had two years ago.

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Many airlines are now rushing to hire pilots, flight attendants, and other workers. In the meantime, some are trimming schedules that they can no longer operate. Southwest did that before the holidays, JetBlue is cutting flights until mid-January, and Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific is suspending cargo flights and reducing passenger flights because it doesn’t have enough pilots.

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