Even as flight disruptions eased slightly on Wednesday, airlines warned that cancellations and delays could continue as they struggle to rebound from coronavirus-related staffing shortages and wintry weather.
Aviation data provider FlightAware reported more than 970 cancellations of flights Wednesday evening within, out of and into the United States, down from more than 1,200 a day earlier and more than 1,400 on Sunday and Monday. United Airlines canceled the most flights among major U.S. carriers, with 161 flights — or roughly 7% — not departing, while regional carrier SkyWest grounded even more of its fleet.
The modest decline in Wednesday’s cancellations, however, may provide little solace to travelers nearly a week into a holiday meltdown that has resulted in the cancellation of more than 6,400 flights.
Delta Air Lines, which said it was canceling 250 flights Wednesday because of weather and rising coronavirus caseloads among employees, warned of more possible disruptions because of weather forecasts for Seattle, Detroit and Salt Lake City.
Meanwhile, Alaska Airlines, which canceled 81 flights on Wednesday — 12% of its scheduled flights — urged passengers to reconsider nonessential travel before Jan. 2 because of limited capacity to rebook travelers. In addition to staffing shortages and rising virus cases, the airline is struggling to recover after heavy weekend snow in Seattle, where it is headquartered. The city received 3.4 inches of snow Sunday, more than fell in all of 2020.
The carrier said it is reducing departures from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport by 20% to allow for time to de-ice planes.
JetBlue Airways canceled about 100 flights Wednesday, about a tenth of its schedule. The low-cost airline said in a statement it would reduce its schedule through Jan. 13, a warning that JetBlue said was intended to give customers time to make alternative plans.
The carrier said new guidance this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that shortens the recommended isolation period from 10 days to five days for people who test positive for the virus — but who do not show symptoms or whose symptoms are resolved — could ease its staffing crunch. Still, it cautioned that operations could be affected because of rapidly rising in caseloads.
“While the new CDC guidelines should help get crew members back to work sooner, and our schedule reduction and other efforts will further ease day-of cancellations, we expect the number of COVID cases in the Northeast — where most of our crew members are based — to continue to surge for the next week or two,” JetBlue said in a statement. “This means there is a high likelihood of additional cancellations until case counts start to come down.”
Low-cost carrier Allegiant Air canceled 41 flights Wednesday, according to FlightAware, about 9% of its schedule. Spokeswoman Hilarie Grey said more cancellations were likely, blaming a mix of bad weather and coronavirus cases.
Airlines began pre-emptively canceling flights just before Christmas after employees began calling in sick with the coronavirus. While scientists are still assessing the impact of the omicron variant, indications are that it is more easily transmissible than previous variants.
On Tuesday, the U.S. set a record for the number of coronavirus infections, at 266,889, surpassing the 248,209 reported Jan. 12. The number could be higher since it does not include thousands of at-home tests taken by individuals who might not report positive results to health officials.
The rising number of infections has renewed questions about whether the Biden administration should require vaccines to fly domestically. Most international travelers coming to the U.S. must show proof of vaccination before traveling to the country.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, said the vaccine requirement for those traveling from international destinations was put into place to keep infections and, in particular, new variants out of the country. In the U.S., he said requirements that people wear masks when flying — combined with air filtration systems on commercial aircraft — offer “sufficient” protection for domestic travelers.
“We will seriously consider [a vaccine requirement] as new information arrives,” he said Wednesday. “It’s just keeping an open mind that the situation may change. But at this particular time, we do not feel that it is necessary to make that a requirement for domestic flights.”
After missing holiday celebrations with family and friends during the pandemic, many Americans have been eager to reunite. Travel forecasts predicted the number of people flying would be close to pre-pandemic levels. Despite the omicron variant surfacing just after Thanksgiving, many were reluctant to cancel their travel plans.
The Transportation Security Administration screened just under 2 million people Tuesday nationwide, a slight drop from Sunday and Monday.