Holiday season

Almost 8,000 flights have been canceled this holiday season. What is going on?

The forces that have scrambled thousands of flights since Christmas Eve may ease in January, but it’s a cold comfort to the millions of travelers with New Year’s plans.

And if 2021 has taught us anything, it’s that 2022 will likely be just as unpredictable.

Here’s a look at what has ruined flights for thousands of people this holiday season, and what could happen over the next few weeks.

What happened?

Airlines were not spared by the spread of the omicron variant, which eliminated flight crews from airlines that had already downsized after the air transport collapse in 2020.

The wave of omicron infections came just as crowds began to pack airports for vacation travel. Then the Pacific Northwest and other areas were hit by cold and heavy snowstorms.

The convergence of the three airlines has forced the cancellation of thousands of flights from Christmas Eve. As of Thursday afternoon, about 7,800 flights to, from or within the United States were stricken, according to flight tracking company FlightAware. More than 1,100 of them were on Thursday.

The United States was not alone. There have been thousands of cancellations overseas. European and Australian airlines are reporting the same logistical concerns regarding COVID-19 and flight crews. Chinese airlines account for a significant percentage of cancellations.

To put that in perspective, most of the flights went off fine. There are nearly 70,000 flights a day around the world, said aviation data provider Cirium.

When could things get better?

U.S. health officials have halved the five-day quarantine forecast for asymptomatic Americans who catch the coronavirus. Airline industry experts say it will alleviate staffing issues that have forced airlines to cut flights – but flight attendant unions say they are wary of the change and its effects on workers’ health. Yet cases of omicron, the rapidly spreading variant of the COVID-19 virus, continue to increase. And that’s not the only problem.

Airlines could take up to a week to fully recover from the persistent bad weather, said Jim Hetzel, flight operations expert at Cirium.

Overcoming the holiday rush will also help. January and February are the slowest travel months of the year after the New Year’s rush, said Willis Orlando, senior flight expert at Scott’s Cheap Flights. “There should be a lot more room for airlines to cut routes, reassign pilots and have back-up personnel. “

Some airlines have also recognized that the confluence of the vacation rush, omicron and bad weather makes it impossible to maintain current schedules.

JetBlue JBLU,
-0.97%
said on Wednesday he was cutting his schedule until mid-January in hopes of giving clients more time to make alternative plans rather than endure last-minute cancellations – although more cancellations remain likely .

“We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience caused by these schedule changes,” said spokesperson Derek Dombrowski. He said crew members volunteer to work overtime and managers get involved where they’re trained to do it.

Alaska Airlines ALK,
-0.38%
urged travelers who could reschedule after Jan. 2 as it reduced departures from Seattle and more cancellations and delays were expected this week. Delta DAL,
-0.31%
and United UAL,
-0.68%
spokespersons said they could not predict when operations would normalize.

Was this wave of cancellations unusual?

Bad weather is a sporadic but constant threat to winter travel. A rebound in travel in 2021, when airlines did not have enough staff to meet demand, led to heavy cancellations and delays earlier this year.

Southwest Airlines LUV,
+1.33%
struggled in the summer and fall due to delays and cancellations, blamed on IT issues, staff shortages and bad weather. American AAL,
+ 0.11%
canceled over 1,000 flights over Halloween weekend due to understaffing. Delta has canceled dozens of flights around Easter this year due to personnel issues.

Could the airlines have done something to prevent this?

Omicron was a shock to the system, and its speed swept through just about everyone, airlines included.

“It’s kind of an extreme circumstance,” said Hetzel, the operations expert at Cirium.

Some airlines have been hit harder than others simply because of where they tend to operate. The Southwest and America had lower geographic exposure to areas of the United States with horrible weather, and fewer of its staff are based in areas with increasing COVID-19 cases, the analyst said. by Raymond James Savanthi Syth.

Task forces, however, say more could have been done, such as providing extra pay to flight attendants during vacation earlier. The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents 50,000 workers from 17 airlines including United, Alaska, Frontier and Spirit SAVE,
+ 0.55%,
said Delta started offering on Christmas Eve, but should have done so earlier. The union that represents American flight attendants said it likely helped the airline recall staff members on leave. In a November memo, American’s chief operating officer noted that nearly 1,800 flight attendants returned from leave in November and that 800 would return in December, along with 600 new hires.

Syth, of Raymond James, did an analysis of airlines that she said were at higher risk of operational problems during the holiday season, which explains most of the airlines’ profitability in the fourth quarter. She found that airlines that were conservative in terms of schedules were affected as well as those that were aggressive.

“This leads me to believe it has more to do with the uniqueness of the omicron variant and the greater impact it is currently having in the northeast than a failure on the part of the airlines to prepare.” , said Syth.

Airlines were better prepared for the holidays than they were for the hail and thunderstorms that hampered travel earlier this year, said Charles Leocha, president and founder of consumer advocacy group Travelers United.

“It’s a far cry from the episodes we faced in the summer and fall when we had airlines that were down for two or three days,” Loecha said. “It was a very good effort. The airlines have paid more money to keep people on reserve and they are paying more money for people to fly. ”

Airlines are hiring. The US Department of Transportation reports that in October, US passenger airlines employed more than 400,000 full-time workers, but this is about 9% less than two years ago.

Even critics say airlines were at the mercy of the pandemic this year.

“The airlines should have planned better and the (Department of Transportation) should have monitored the capacity of the airlines and demanded ready stocks of equipment and personnel given the large federal subsidies since 2020,” said Paul Hudson, chairman from advocacy group FlyersRights.org. “But the high infection rate of the omicron variant is mainly to blame in the disruption of the holiday season.”

What should travelers do if airlines cancel their flights?

If your flight is canceled, most airlines will put you on the next available plane to your destination for free. “They will find a way to get you there. You don’t have to pay anything more, ”said Leocha.

If you cancel your trip instead of taking another flight, you are entitled to a refund, even if you had non-refundable tickets. When canceling flights, airlines tend to push customers towards vouchers for future flights instead of offering a full refund. Orlando, of Scott’s Cheap Flights, urged travelers to remember their right to get their money back. “Airlines make it very easy for them to keep your money,” he said.

You can also ask the airline to transfer your ticket to another airline, but they are not obligated to do so. Likewise, airlines are not required to reimburse you for hotel rooms, taxis or other expenses.


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