The Christmas holiday travel period has thus far seen a perfect storm, with the convergence of surging omicron variant cases keeping many airline crews grounded just as travelers return to the air in pandemic-era record numbers. Add to that severe weather in parts of the US, and the result is hundreds of disrupted flight schedules.
On Christmas Eve, when the Transportation Security Administration reported a near-record number of more than 1.7 million passengers passing through its checkpoints, airlines canceled nearly 700 fights, according to FlightAware. As of mid-day of Dec 25, nearly 900 flights within, into or out of the US had been canceled.
Airlines are laying much of the blame on omicron cases among flight crews as a main reason behind the cancelations.
“The nationwide spike in Omicron cases this week has had a direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operation,” read a statement from United Airlines, which reportedly canceled 201 flights on Dec. 24, or about 10 percent of its schedule.
“As a result, we’ve unfortunately had to cancel some flights and are notifying impacted customers in advance of them coming to the airport.”
Delta, which canceled 173 Christmas Eve flights, issued a similar statement, saying, “Delta teams have exhausted all options and resources — including rerouting and substitutions of aircraft and crews to cover scheduled flying. Flight cancellations are due to a combination of issues, including but not limited to, potential inclement weather in some areas and the impact of the omicron variant.”
Other major US carriers, including American, Alaska and JetBlue have fared better, but still are reporting a number of holiday cancelations and delays.
It may take longer for airlines to recover from the disruptions caused by COVID-19 because of the 10-day isolation period required by currently Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
According to a Dec. 21 letter from Delta chief executive officer Ed Bastian and the airline’s medical officers to Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, “the 10-day isolation for those who are fully vaccinated may significantly impact our workforce and operations.”
Instead, Bastian proposed a 5-day isolation period from the time that symptoms begin.
JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes also urged the CDC to change the guidelines. “Healthcare workers, first responders, airline professionals and many other essential employees across the economy who are fully vaccinated may no longer need a full 10-day isolation.”
The proposal was also supported by aviation trade organization Airlines for America in a similar letter to Dr. Walensky.
Calling the 10-day isolation period “extremely disruptive,” Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said in an interview with the New York Post that, “A realistic isolation period is one which lasts so long as contagiousness lasts. It may be as short as a few days in some people and longer in others.”
Any change for flight crews may have some precedent given that administration health officials have cut the 10-day isolation guideline to 7-day for positive, but asymptomatic health care workers.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical advisor, told a news briefing that the proposed change would apply to fully vaccinated people who test positive for COVID-19 but no longer have symptoms.
However thus far the Biden administration has made it clear that the new recommendations apply only to health care workers, and isolation and quarantine guidance for others remain unchanged.