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Thousands of flights canceled, delayed at start of workweek

UPDATED: Mon., Jan. 3, 2022

Travelers walk to their gates at the Philadelphia International Airport on Dec. 31. Wintry weather combined with the pandemic to frustrate air travelers.  (Associated Press )
Travelers walk to their gates at the Philadelphia International Airport on Dec. 31. Wintry weather combined with the pandemic to frustrate air travelers. (Associated Press )
From staff and wire reports

From staff and wire reports

A winter storm that hit the mid-Atlantic on Monday combined with pandemic-caused shortages of airline workers to push flight cancellations to a holiday-season high, creating more frustration for travelers just trying to get home.

More than 3,000 U.S. flights and about 4,700 worldwide were canceled by late afternoon Monday on the East Coast, according to tracking service FlightAware. Another 12,500 flights were delayed, including 5,600 in the U.S.

As of 3:30 p.m. Monday, two flights bound for Spokane International Airport from Seattle and one from Sacramento had been canceled. In addition, four afternoon departures to Seattle were canceled.

Travelers could take hope from an improving weather forecast: Airlines had canceled fewer than 400 U.S. flights scheduled for Tuesday.

First, however, they had to contend with a winter storm that dumped several inches of snow on the District of Columbia, northern Virginia and central Maryland before quitting Monday afternoon.

The cancellations and delays just added to the despair felt over the weekend by holidays travelers trying to get home.

On social media, travelers complained about late cancellations, lost bags and long hold times to reach anybody in airline customer service. Some said they slept in airports and didn’t know when they would get home.

With the spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant, the seven-day rolling average for daily new cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. has tripled over the past two weeks and topped 400,000 on Sunday, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University.

The toll of grounded flights in the U.S. was in the few hundreds per day the week before Christmas, then soared past 1,000 a day, as airlines blamed crew shortages caused by the virus.

For several days, airlines and their passengers lucked out with mostly favorable weather, but a winter storm that hit the Midwest on Saturday caused cancellations to spike again to new holiday-season highs.

Over the weekend, about 5,400 U.S. flights were canceled – nearly 12% of all scheduled flights – and more than 9,000 worldwide, according to FlightAware. By Monday afternoon, about 18,000 U.S. flights had been canceled since Christmas Eve.

Many of the cancellations were made hours or even a day in advance. Airline believe they have a better chance to keep lighter schedules on track, and it saves passengers from making needless trips to the airport.

More than three-quarters of Monday’s scheduled flights at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and nearly half of those at nearby Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport were scrubbed, according to FlightAware. Both airports received more than six inches of snow.

Southwest Airlines had canceled about 600 flights, or 16% of Monday’s schedule, by midday. Spokesman Brad Hawkins said storms over the weekend and on Monday affected operations at some of its biggest airports, including Chicago, Denver and Baltimore, and left planes and crews out of position.

United Airlines said the nationwide COVID-19 spike caused by the omicron variant has affected its flight crews, resulting in canceled flights. Delta cited winter weather and omicron, but said it expected fewer than half as many cancellations Tuesday and Wednesday. American cited the storm in the Washington area, and said the number of employees calling in sick because of COVID-19 was similar to the past few days, although it declined to give figures.

SkyWest, a regional carrier that operates flights under the names United Express, American Eagle and Delta Connection, grounded more than 350 flights Monday after scrubbing 500 on Sunday.Thousands of miles from the snow storms, Hawaiian Airlines said it had to cancel several flights between islands and across the Pacific due to staffing shortages.

Airlines are paying temporary bonuses to encourage pilots and flight attendants to pick up flights left empty by co-workers with COVID-19. United will pay pilots triple their usual wages for picking up open flights through most of January. Spirit Airlines reached a deal with the union to pay flight attendants double through Tuesday.

A winter storm moving into the mid-Atlantic combined with the pandemic to continue frustrating air travelers whose return flights home from the holidays were canceled or delayed in the first few days of the new year.

More than 1,900 U.S. flights and more than 3,300 worldwide were grounded as of early Monday, according to tracking service FlightAware.

That follows Sunday’s cancellations of more than 2,700 U.S. flights, and more than 4,400 worldwide.

And on Saturday there were also more than 2,700 U.S. flights cancelled and more than 4,700 worldwide.

The winter storm is expected to bring as much as 10 inches of snow for the District of Columbia, northern Virginia and central Maryland through Monday afternoon.

The cancellations, coupled with more than 5,000 flight delays on Monday, just add to the despair felt over the weekend by holidays travelers trying to get home.

“It was absolute mayhem,” said Natasha Enos, who spent a sleepless Saturday night and Sunday morning at Denver International Airport during what was supposed to be a short layover on a cross-country trip from Washington to San Francisco.

Saturday’s single-day U.S. toll of grounded flights was the highest since just before Christmas, when airlines began blaming staffing shortages on increasing COVID-19 infections among crews.

A winter storm that hit the Midwest on Saturday made Chicago the worst place in the country for travelers throughout the weekend.

About a quarter of all flights at O’Hare Airport were canceled Sunday.

Denver’s airport also faced significant disruptions. Enos, who was flying on Frontier Airlines, didn’t learn that her connecting flight home to California was canceled until she had already landed in Denver.

Then it was a rush to find alternative flights and navigate through baggage claims packed with stranded and confused travelers, amid concerns about the spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant of COVID-19.

“It was a lot of people in a very small space and not everybody was masking,” said the 28-year-old financial analyst. “There were a lot of exhausted kids and some families were so stressed out.”

In Michigan, the authority that runs Detroit International Airport said crews were working around the clock to remove snow and maintain the airfield.

Atlanta’s airport authority advised travelers to arrive earlier than usual because of high passenger volume, potential weather issues and pandemic-fueled staffing shortages that could lengthen the time it takes to get through security gates.

And thousands of miles from the closest snow storms, Hawaiian Airlines said it had to cancel several flights between islands and across the Pacific due to staffing shortages.

Southwest Airlines said it was working to help customers affected by about 400 flights canceled around the country Sunday, about 11% of its schedule.

The Dallas-based airline anticipates even more operational challenges to come as the storm system pushes into the Eastern seaboard.

Delta Air Lines said Sunday it was issuing a travel waiver for planned flights this week out of mid-Atlantic airports in Baltimore and Washington in preparation for forecasted winter weather.

American Airlines said most of Sunday’s canceled flights had been canceled ahead of time to avoid last-minute disruptions at the airport.

SkyWest, a regional carrier that operates flights under the names American Eagle, Delta Connection and United Express, grounded more than 500 flights Sunday, about 20% of its schedule, according to FlightAware.

Airlines have said they are taking steps to reduce cancellations caused by workers affected by the pandemic.

United is offering to pay pilots triple or more of their usual wages for picking up open flights through most of January.

Spirit Airlines reached a deal with the Association of Flight Attendants for double pay for cabin crews through Tuesday, a union spokesperson said.

Airlines hope that extra pay and reduced schedules get them through the holiday crush and into the heart of January, when travel demand usually drops off.

The seasonal decline could be sharper than normal this year because most business travelers are still grounded.

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