Since Dec. 24, when the first signs of trouble driven by the omicron variant of the coronavirus began to emerge, more than 15,000 U.S. flights have been canceled. Wintry weather at busy hubs this week fueled more disruptions as an 11-day meltdown showed no signs of waning at the nation’s airports.
Monday’s increase in cancellations was driven, in part, by storms in the Northeast at a time when other major hubs, including Chicago and Atlanta, were recovering from weather this past weekend.
The Washington region’s three major airports were hit hard Monday by the area’s first major snowstorm of the season. As conditions at Reagan National and Baltimore Washington International Marshall deteriorated, the Federal Aviation Administration issued an hours-long ground stop because of snow and ice, halting operations and preventing the departure of flights scheduled to land at the airports. By early afternoon, inbound traffic at both airports was allowed to resume.
As the snow stopped falling, 85 percent of National’s scheduled departures were canceled Monday, according to Flight Aware. That number stood at 44 percent at BWI, the region’s busiest airport. Washington Dulles International fared slightly better, but even so, more than a quarter of scheduled departures were canceled.
Southwest Airlines canceled the most flights Monday among U.S. carriers. The airline’s efforts to recover from weekend storms in the Midwest that affected its Chicago operations were further hampered by snowy weather at BWI, another of its hubs. According to Flight Aware, the carrier canceled more than 600 flights, or 16 percent, of those scheduled Monday, up from 11 percent a day earlier.
Regional carrier SkyWest also continued to struggle, reporting 368 flights were canceled by early evening, compared to 570 cancellations Sunday.
The pain was spread widely among U.S. airlines Monday, with most reporting cancellations. Passengers flying American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Frontier Airlines and Spirit Airlines were affected.
The weather-related problems in recent days have added to airlines’ woes as they contend with staffing shortages — the result of a growing number of workers testing positive for the coronavirus.
Some airlines showed slight improvements: JetBlue reported about 151 cancellations Monday, down from 178 on Sunday. The carrier announced last week it would preemptively cancel 1,280 flights through Jan. 13.
Derek Dombrowski, a JetBlue spokesman, said in an email that the airline entered the holiday season with its highest staffing levels of the coronavirus pandemic. But like many businesses, he said, the airline has seen a surge in sick calls because of the omicron variant. He said JetBlue expects coronavirus cases will continue to surge for the next few weeks in New York, where it is based.
Henry Harteveldt, an aviation analyst with Atmosphere Research Group, said other carriers could follow JetBlue’s lead in canceling flights days before their departure.
“If we see omicron still raging, we may see airlines announce further cancellations in their schedule for the remainder of January and possibly into February as well,” he said. “Those are smart, prudent business decisions. It is better for the airlines to make adjustments now and work with passengers to get everyone rebooked on flights that will work rather than get caught up in a chaotic environment like we’ve seen this past week where everything is reactive.”
The Transportation Security Administration also reported a rise in coronavirus infections. On Monday, the agency had an additional 831 active cases, a 46 percent increase from Sunday, when it reported 1,778 cases. The agency noted that the increase is probably due to delays in reporting, rather than a sudden spike in infections.
The FAA also has warned of potential delays amid rising infections among its workforce, which includes air traffic controllers.
Weather is frequently a factor during the holiday travel season, and airlines routinely plan for potential disruptions. But the coronavirus — particularly the omicron variant, which health experts say spreads more quickly — has played havoc with their ability to plan.
Reeling from high-profile meltdowns this summer and fall, many carriers, including American and Southwest airlines, had offered employees bonus pay for working during the holidays and additional pay for those with “perfect attendance.” But the promise of higher pay has been thwarted by omicron, which surfaced as the industry was celebrating the successful and relatively trouble-free Thanksgiving travel period.
High-profile cancellations have done little to curb enthusiasm for air travel. The TSA reported screening just more than 2 million passengers Sunday, compared with 1.3 million on the same day in 2021, which fell on a Saturday.
With many returning to work and school, January is typically a slower month for leisure travel. In pre-pandemic times, more seats were filled by business travelers, but with many companies delaying returns to the office, those seats could help alleviate a backlog in passengers trying to get to their destinations.
Carriers were counting on a robust holiday travel season to help boost their balance sheets, but disruptions that have stretched for nearly two weeks could hamper airlines’ return to profitability. Delta Air Lines will be the first carrier to report fourth-quarter earnings later this month.
Flight disruptions this summer and fall proved costly for several carriers. After running into operational issues in July and early August, Spirit Airlines was forced to cancel more than 2,800 flights, which resulted in a loss of $50 million. Southwest Airlines said an operational meltdown in early October forced the cancellation of more than 2,000 flights, costing it an estimated $75 million.