United Airlines has slashed at least 163 flights from its Christmas Eve schedule due to staffing woes caused by a sudden uptick in sickness that the carrier is blaming on the Omicron variant.
Similar Omicron-related staffing issues are affecting other airlines, including Delta Air Lines which has proactively cancelled more than 100 flights on Friday, as well as Lufthansa, British Airways and SAS on the other side of the Atlantic as Omicron rips through Europe.
Embarrassingly for United, chief executive Scott Kirby wrote to frequent flyers at the start of November promising travellers they could trust the Chicago-based carrier with their Holiday travel because it wouldn’t suffer the same kind of staffing problems that plagued other airlines over the summer.
That promise was made on the back of United’s deliberate strategy to only add back capacity slowly and its very early decision to enforce a wide-sweeping vaccine mandate.
United has achieved a vaccination rate of more than 99% of eligible employees but the airline’s mandate does not include boosters. The Omicron variant has a far higher degree of vaccine escape than previous COVID-19 variants but early evidence suggests a booster shot provides a good degree of additional protection against severe disease or death.
A spokesperson for United has apologized for the meltdown, saying in a statement: “The nationwide spike in Omicron cases this week has had a direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operation.”
“As a result, we’ve unfortunately had to cancel some flights and are notifying impacted customers in advance of them coming to the airport. Were sorry for the disruption and are working hard to rebook as many people as possible and get them on their way for the holiday”.
Some travellers may find themselves rebooked on larger aircraft according to aviation insider JonNYC who reports that United is responding to a lack of single-aisle Boeing 737 pilots by bringing in much larger widebody jets including the Boeing 777 to operate some Holiday flights.
The mass cancellations are likely to leave aircraft and crews out of position and could take days to resolve. Sickness levels haven’t yet peaked and problems could get much worse in the coming days. An increasing number of crew are developing symptoms and testing positive for COVID-19 in the middle of trip sequences or during international layovers, leaving schedules in tatters.
Delta Air says it has already cancelled 106 flights on Christmas Eve but only after it had “exhausted” all other options including rerouting and substitutions of both aircraft and crew.
“We apologize to our customers for the delay in their holiday plans,” a spokesperson for the said. “Delta people are working hard to get them to where they need to be as quickly and as safely as possible on the next available flight.”
Delta chief executive Ed Bastian warned of an impending staffing crunch in a letter sent earlier this week to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in which he pleaded for a reduction in the recommended isolation period for breakthrough COVID-19 cases.
Bastian wants to see the 10-day isolation period for fully vaccinated people who test positive for COVID-19 reduced to just five days. Under Delta’s proposal, people would only be released early from isolation if they returned a negative test after five days. A similar proposal is being pushed by jetBlue.
The CDC has agreed to reduce the isolation period for healthcare workers but hasn’t yet decided on whether it is safe to cut quarantine for other essential workers.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.