Some 4,500 commercial flights have been canceled or rescheduled over the weekend worldwide as crews were affected by the Omicron variant of coronavirus, which left airlines short of staff to handle the sudden crisis.
According to FlightAware, some 2,300 flights were suspended on Christmas Eve alone, while 2,200 others needed to be rescheduled for the following days due to the number of passengers stranded.
The cancellations were due to cases of COVID-19, particularly the Omicron variant, which had infected both crews and airport staff, the airlines reported.
The website also reported some 700 of the affected flights were to depart or to land at the United States, a country which has recorded over 52 million COVID-19 infections, with more than 816,000 deaths.
The Omicron variant has already become the dominant one in the United States, with an average of more than 188,000 daily positives in the last week and an epidemiological curve on the rise.
The peak of Omicron cases across the country this week has had a direct impact on our crews and the people who run our operations, said United Airlines, which had to cancel more than 200 trips.
Delta Air Lines also canceled 260 flights, due to COVID-19 but also to adverse weather conditions. Delta teams have exhausted all options and resources before deciding on these cancellations, the airline explained in a statement. Delta had to cancel yet another 300 flights Sunday after exhausting all alternatives and resources, including changing routes and substituting crews to cover scheduled flights, before initiating cancellations on Friday. We apologize to our customers for the delay in their flight plans for the holidays.
JetBlue canceled 80 flights Friday, 7% of its operation, Alaska Airlines reported that it had canceled 17 flights due to Omicron.
China Eastern canceled 480 flights, about 20% of the planned itineraries and Air China grounded 15% of its services. Several cases were also reported in the United Kingdom and Australia.
In the case of the United States, the situation also reveals a battle between the managers of the large airlines and the unions. In response to the pre-holiday chaos, airlines this week sent a letter to Rochelle Walensky, Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Prevention (CDC), asking her to ease the isolation period that vaccinated people who have been exposed to the virus must undergo or ten to five days. Faced with pressure from the Airlines for America group, which represents Delta, United and American, before the CDC to reduce isolation times, the union of flight attendants (AFA) sent Walensky a letter to maintain the ten-day rule in force.
Germany's Lufthansa said it was forced to cancel several long-haul transatlantic flights due to illnesses among its crew members, although it did not mention whether the illness was COVID-19. There is currently a massive increase in sick leave, said a spokesman. Therefore, we have canceled flights across the North Atlantic, for example to Washington, Boston and Houston from Frankfurt.