Each day for a week now, travelers across the country have scrambled as thousands of flights have been canceled and delayed.
The year began with COVID-19 and weather combining to cancel more than 2,400 U.S. flights on New Year's Day and nearly 4,200 worldwide – marking the highest single-day toll yet since just before Christmas, when airlines began blaming staffing shortages on increasing COVID infections among crews.
More than 12,000 U.S. flights have been canceled since Dec. 24.
"We look at flights but see, the thing is they're connected to people," said Captain Dennis Tajer, an American Airlines pilot and spokesperson for their pilots union, Allied Pilots Association. "For each one of those passengers, there may be five to 10 family members and friends that were counting on them being at the holiday table."
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While Southwest has attributed this week's flight disruptions to winter weather, many other U.S. airlines have also cited COVID cases among staff as contributing factors.
There were more than 1.8 million new COVID cases reported in the U.S. this past week according to USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins data. Flu cases have been on the rise, too.
In a perfect storm of circumstances, between inclement weather and another coronavirus wave, travel industry experts expect the holiday travel season to come to a bumpy end for customers, and winter is just beginning.
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A wintry mix
"It's tough enough to travel in the winter just because of bad weather, but COVID and the omicron variant are introducing new wrinkles that none of us had anticipated," said independent travel industry analyst and Atmosphere Research Group president Henry Harteveldt. "Airlines have only so many of those standby crew members available."
And staffing presents its own dilemmas in the middle of a pandemic.
"We're starting to see COVID call-outs creeping up again," Alaska Airlines told USA TODAY said. "When you layer that with out-of-place crew due to the weather issues, we’re forced to cancel flights during an already busy holiday week."
JetBlue told USA TODAY the majority of its cancellations are related to staffing, and has gone a step further by proactively canceling nearly 1,300 flights over the next two weeks. Delta, American and United also said omicron impacts drove disruptions.
SkyWest attributed recent cancellations to both "ongoing weather challenges in major hubs and crew availability as a result of elevated COVID cases and quarantines, with the majority being weather."
"If you're traveling within the next week, chances are it's still going to be a very, very uneven, perhaps even chaotic operating environment for airlines," Harteveldt said. "My hope is that within the next week, because of the new guidelines posted by the CDC that say employees who are fully vaccinated and asymptomatic can return to work if they feel well enough to do so, we will start to see the number of cancellations go down."
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Will new CDC guidelines help?
Delta said it's already working on adopting the CDC's new recommendations, which cut isolation and quarantine times down to five days for people who've tested positive or have been exposed to COVID. Fully vaccinated people who've received booster shots may skip quarantines following exposure if they mask up for 10 days.
Just last week, the airline's CEO Ed Bastian and health leaders wrote a letter asking the CDC to consider such measures for breakthrough infections, which some people have criticized though both Delta and CDC point to science.
Both Tajer and independent travel industry analyst Robert Mann noted that airlines have been known to inadvertently incentivize people to work when they don't feel well, with policies like paying flight attendants triple pay to show up during busy periods or taking away previously earned overtime pay for pilots who get sick and call out for regular shifts.
"That's not the that's not the stated purpose of the incentive," said Mann, who is president of R.W. Mann and a former airline executive for airlines like American and TWA. "The stated purpose of the incentive is obviously to keep people from falsely calling out sick, but the moral hazard in that argument is that some who are symptomatic but really aren't sure what they have – you know they have sniffles, they have whatever – they may come to work, simply because they're being incentivized to work."
Mann does expect staffing options to improve in early January as airlines begin new reserve pools for standby employees at the start of each month, but he warns COVID could still be a wild card, particularly with so many people gathering over the holidays and potentially getting sick or having to quarantine.
"You have a positive factor which is the new crew month. You have a negative factor which is the new case rate of the omicron virus," he said. "But then over time, there will be an impact of the new case rate continuing into January and until the omicron variant runs its course. Of course, nobody knows when that's going to be."
How to prepare for flight disruptions
While the COVID forecast remains unclear, one thing airlines and travelers can expect is winter storms, which can have far-reaching consequences even when isolated to certain parts of the country.
"If a flight is delayed at the beginning of the day, depending on how much time an airline has scheduled between the time the plane arrives at its destination and departs again on its next journey and how long the delay is, that first delay can cascade through the rest of the day," Harteveldt said. "And it's not like airlines can wave a magic wand and have Boeing or Airbus magically deliver another airplane."
He recommends travelers sign up for text or email notifications from airlines regarding changes to their flights, whether the cause is weather, staffing or mechanical issues.
"We forget that airplanes sometimes break down," he said. "Be prepared for disruptions."
For travelers booking future trips, he recommends allowing plenty of time between connections in case one leg of the journey is delayed. He also suggests planning to arrive at destinations a day before any time-sensitive events like weddings or cruise departures.
If possible, Mann recommends booking flights with frequent flyer miles or using a credit card, which may offer trip protection.
"You have to look very carefully at the cancellation privileges that you have so that either if you have to cancel or if the airline elects to make significant changes that makes the replacement trip not particularly valuable to you, you have the opportunity to get your money back," he said.
If a flight is canceled, the Department of Transportation requires airlines to offer passengers refunds, regardless of the reason for cancellation or type of ticket purchased. They are also required to offer refunds for "significant delays," but each airlines defines those terms differently.
"In many cases, customers will just roll over," Mann said. "If it doesn't work for you, check to see whether it represents that sort of DOT-defined significant change and then decide what you want to do. If you want to take the trip, that's fine. (If not,) ask for your money back. Don't take credit."
Airlines are offering various types of compensation for this week's disruptions as they work around the clock to get travelers to their destinations. Delta is also offering waivers to reschedule flights ahead of more expected winter weather this week.
"Canceling a flight is always Delta's last resort," the airline's chief of operations John Laughter said in a statement Monday. "The result is not only difficult for customers, but for our people who want nothing more than to take care of them – especially over the holidays. We sincerely apologize to everyone impacted."
Alaska Airlines is encouraging customers who don't need to fly out before Jan. 2 to consider rescheduling their trips.
Tajer noted crew members empathize with passengers when schedules go sideways.
"When a flight cancels, we're calling home just like you are, saying 'I may not be on time,' " he said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Flight cancellations, delays: Omicron, weather to extend disruptions