Omicron hits airline crews and sparks hundreds of Christmas weekend flight cancellations

Delta Airlines and an American Airlines planes taxi away from their gate ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday at Logan International Airport in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., November 22, 2021.

Brian Snyder | Reuters

Airlines canceled nearly 1,000 flights Sunday as the rapid spread of the omicron variant of Covid-19 continued to drive sick calls from flight crews higher.

Since Friday, airlines scrubbed more than 1,500 U.S. flights, disrupting travel during the busy holiday weekend, which carriers were expecting to be some of the busiest days of the pandemic. United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and JetBlue Airways cited the spread of omicron among crews as a reason for the cancellations.

“Our current pilot Covid-19 case count is on the rise,” Bryan Quigley, United’s senior vice president of flight operations, wrote Sunday in a message to pilots, which was seen by CNBC. “Pilots who have developed symptoms are also in quarantine and we have a high number of pilots on the sick list.

“During the course of the pandemic, when our numbers rose, we were able to absorb the flying because we had a significantly reduced schedule,” United’s Quigley wrote to pilots. “Now as we approach 2019 flying levels, we must do all we can to ensure we are protected so that we can fly the schedule.

Data from flight-tracking site FlightAware showed that Delta canceled 6% of its schedule, or 164 flights on Sunday after canceling 310 a day earlier. United had canceled 113 flights, or 5% of its mainline schedule, down from 240 flights on Saturday. JetBlue canceled 252 flights Saturday and Sunday. American Airlines dropped 178 flights over the weekend.

U.S. airline executives last week asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to halve quarantine guidelines for fully vaccinated individuals who test positive for Covid to five days from the current 10, citing potential staffing shortages and flight disruptions. The CDC eased its guidelines for health-care workers with breakthrough Covid infections last week.

New York State health officials shortened the quarantine period for essential workers with breakthrough Covid cases to five days.

“If you meet this criteria and are eligible to return to work after 5 days of isolation, you must otherwise stay at home when not at work and continue to take basic precautions until the end of the standard 10-day isolation period,” New York-based JetBlue said in an employee memo.

Airlines said they expected the year-end holiday period to include some of their busiest days since the pandemic began. After staffing struggles in previous months led to flight disruptions, airlines offered crews extra pay to work peak holiday periods and meet attendance goals.

A JetBlue spokesman said the New York-based airline entered the holiday season with the highest staffing levels since the start of the pandemic.

“Like many businesses and organizations, we have seen an increasing number of sick calls from Omicron,” he said in a statement. “Despite our best efforts, we’ve had to cancel a number of flights, and additional flight cancellations and other delays remain a possibility as we see more Omicron community spread.”

The carrier trimmed schedule ahead of time to avoid last-minute disruptions and also assigned managers to frontline operations if they are trained, the spokesman added.

Spirit Airlines canceled more than 93 flights on Saturday and Sunday and offered flight attendants double pay to pick up trips this weekend, their union said.