After months of mass cancellations and meltdowns, the disruptions in U.S. air travel reached new heights over the weekend as airlines canceled more than 2,000 flights Sunday – with more on the way for Monday.
U.S. carriers canceled more than 2,500 flights on Sunday as travelers headed home or back to work after New Year celebrations, according to data from FlightAware.com. As of 8 a.m. Monday, airlines had canceled roughly 1,750 flights for the day and counting. By midday, that had grown to more than 2,500 for a second consecutive day.
And those cancellations are likely to stretch through this week and perhaps beyond as airlines struggle to recover while short-staffed due to the Omicron variant.
Through 2021, mass cancellations were typically seen on just one or two airlines at a time. But now the disruptions are affecting almost every U.S. airline, big and small, making it impossible for travelers to change carriers in order to avoid delays or cancellations. Hundreds of cancellations – and even more delays – per day have become the norm no matter what carrier you're flying.
Wondering what you can do when an airline cancels your flight? Read our guide for tips!
Some are clearly struggling more than others. Regional carrier SkyWest – which operates flights on behalf of many major airlines including Alaska, American, Delta, and United – canceled almost 600 flights on Sunday, nearly a quarter of its flights for the day. By the early morning, Southwest had already proactively canceled more than 400 flights for Monday. And JetBlue announced last week it would cancel 1,300-plus flights over the next two weeks – and warned that may not be the end of it.
Pockets of storms across the country over the last week have played a part in the instability, but it's clear there's one main culprit: The Omicron variant. Infections among pilots, flight attendants, and even ground crew have left airlines short-staffed, unable to carry out the flights they sold to American travelers over the holiday weekend and into January.
“We expect the number of COVID cases in the Northeast where most of our crew members are based to continue to surge for the next week or two,” JetBlue said when it canceled 1,000-plus flights. “This means there is a high likelihood of additional cancellations until case counts start to come down.”
We've called on the U.S. to give travelers more rights and protections when flights get delayed or canceled – read our column from last week!
Airlines including Delta successfully petitioned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to halve the previous 10-day mandatory quarantine period. But even that controversial decision hasn't been enough to get airlines back to full strength in time.
In a memo to crews obtained by Thrifty Traveler, Delta officials said the number of unplanned staff absences was more than double what the airline saw over the Thanksgiving travel weekend.
In a one-two punch of bad news, the staff problems have led to long lines in airport queues as well as ballooning wait times to reach airlines. Some travelers reported waiting 15-plus hours to reach Delta over the weekend – either by phone or through its message function.
Airlines have pulled out all the stops trying to right the ship. United, for example, offered triple pay to pilots who pick up extra shifts through the end of the month – and even more through Monday, after which travel volumes are expected to drop off.
But it's clear that the problems causing the disruptions aren't going to disappear anytime soon. The latest wave of COVID-19 infections isn't expected to peak for several more weeks as it sweeps across the U.S.
“Things are likely to get worse before it gets better,” JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes told ABC News.