Major airlines cancelling Christmas Eve flights as their crews call in sick

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At least three major airlines have reported cancelling dozens of flights as illnesses largely tied to the Omicron variant of the coronavirus take a toll on flight crew numbers during the busy holiday travel season.

Germany-based Lufthansa said Friday it was cancelling a dozen long-haul transatlantic flights over the Christmas holiday period because of a “massive rise” in sick leave among pilots. The cancellations on flights to Houston, Boston and Washington come despite a “large buffer” of additional staff for the period.

The airline said it couldn’t speculate on whether COVID-19 infections or quarantines were responsible because it was not informed about the sort of illness. Passengers were booked on other flights.

High rate of sick calls

Lufthansa said in a statement “we planned a very large buffer for the vacation period. But this was not sufficient due to the high rate of people calling in sick.”

Delta Air Lines and United Airlines said they cancelled dozens of flights because of staff shortages tied to the Omicron variant. Delta cancelled 145 flights on Friday and 111 for Christmas Day, according to FlightAware. (Other factors, such as weather, are also causing cancellations.) United called off 175 flights on Friday and 69 on Saturday.

“The nationwide spike in Omicron cases this week has had a direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operation,” United said in a statement to several news outlets. “As a result, we’ve unfortunately had to cancel some flights and are notifying impacted customers in advance of them coming to the airport.”

The airline said it was working to rebook as many people as possible.

All options ‘exhausted’

Delta said it cancelled flights on Friday because of the impact of Omicron and possibility of bad weather after it had “exhausted all options and resources — including rerouting and substitutions of aircraft and crews to cover scheduled flying.”

It said in a statement to several news outlets that it was trying to get passengers to their destinations quickly.

Holiday travellers depart Chicago’s Midway International Airport check in as a Southwest Airlines flight arrives on Thursday. (Charles Rex Arbogast/The Associated Press)

The cancellations come as coronavirus cases driven by the new variant further squeeze staffing at hospitals, police departments, supermarkets and other critical operations struggling to maintain a full contingent of front-line workers.

“Airline staff are humans just like everybody else. So I think you’re going to see a lot of this happening,” Dr. Christopher Labos, a Montreal cardiologist and epidemiologist, told CBC’s Katie Nicholson on Thursday. “The difference between airline staff and most other businesses is that when you work on a plane, you can’t work from home.

“So I think what they’re seeing in the airlines is, to a certain extent, almost what we’ve been seeing in the health-care system, which is that at a certain point, if enough people get sick, you can’t have your business function properly anymore.”

Flight delays and cancellations tied to staffing shortages have been a regular problem for the U.S. airline industry this year. Airlines encouraged workers to quit in 2020, when air travel collapsed, and were caught short-staffed this year as travel recovered.

Countries including Spain and Britain have reduced the length of COVID-19 quarantines to ease staffing shortages by letting people return to work sooner after testing positive or being exposed to the virus.

Delta CEO Ed Bastian was among those who have called on the Biden administration to take similar steps or risk further disruptions in air travel.

Busy travel days

While some travellers cancelled holiday plans because of rising case numbers, many others kept to their vacations during some of the year’s busiest travel days. The Transportation Security Administration said it expects to screen nearly 30 million people from Dec. 20 through Jan. 3, compared with nearly 44 million during the last holiday season before the pandemic.

According to FlightAware, there are nearly 3,400 cancelled flights on Friday and Saturday, with at least half of the cancellations by Chinese airlines. About 20 per cent of affected flights — 745 — were to, from or within the U.S. This is a small fraction of global flights. FlightAware says it has tracked more than 120,000 arrivals in the past 24 hours.

Passengers line up at the security checkpoint at Pittsburgh International Airport on Friday. (Gene J. Puskar/The Associated Press)

Not all airlines said COVID-19 was disrupting their travel schedules. American Airlines said it had “nothing to report,” while Southwest Airlines said “things are running smoothly.”

A spokesperson for Canada’s WestJet said the airline was not seeing similar issues to its U.S. counterparts. 

“The large majority of our posted cancellations within the last 24 hours are related to the major snow event that significantly impacted our operations last night and into this morning out of our primary hub in Calgary,” Madison Kruger said in an email to CBC News.

Similarly, Air Canada said in an email to CBC News that “we have the crews to operate our schedule so we have not been impacted as some other carriers have been.”

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