A winter storm that hit the mid-Atlantic on Monday combined with shortages of airline workers caused by a pandemic to push flight cancellations to an all-time high for the holiday season, creating more frustration for travelers just trying to get home.
More than 3,000 US flights and about 4,800 around the world were canceled late Monday afternoon on the east coast, according to tracking service FlightAware. 13,000 other flights were delayed, including more than 6,000 in the United States
Travelers could hope for an improvement in the weather forecast: Airlines had canceled fewer than 400 US flights scheduled for Tuesday.
First, however, they had to deal with a winter storm that dumped several inches of snow over the District of Columbia, northern Virginia and central Maryland before leaving Monday afternoon.
Cancellations and delays have added to the desperation felt over the weekend by vacation travelers trying to get home.
Jason Pevitt was stranded at the Atlanta airport for eight hours – and it’s not over – Monday night, trying to get home to Virginia after spending the vacation with his family in Tampa, Florida. He was becoming increasingly worried about the risk of COVID-19 transmission in the terminal.
American Airlines canceled Pevitt’s initial flight to Reagan Washington National Airport long before a winter storm system hit the Washington area on Monday. He changed reservations on Delta Air Lines, but suffered further cancellations after a stopover in Atlanta, this time clearly due to the storm.
“There’s never a given reason for anything. It’s my biggest problem,” said the 28-year-old, who works for an accounting firm.
Many other travelers have tweeted with airlines complaining about last minute cancellations and long delays, lost luggage, and hours of waiting to reach anyone for customer service. Some said they slept in airports.
The US ground flight toll was a few hundred a day the week before Christmas, then topped 1,000 a day. Airlines have blamed the crew shortage on the spread of the virus, including the highly transmissible variant of omicron – new cases have tripled in the past two weeks, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University.
Airlines and passengers lucked out for several days with generally favorable weather, but that changed when a winter storm hit the Midwest on Saturday and pushed cancellations to new highs for the holiday season.
Over the weekend, about 5,400 US flights were canceled – nearly 12% of all scheduled flights – and more than 9,000 globally, according to FlightAware. As of Monday afternoon, around 18,000 US flights had been canceled since Christmas Eve.
Most cancellations were made hours or even a day in advance. The airline believes it has a better chance of keeping lighter schedules on track, and that saves passengers from making unnecessary trips to the airport.
More than three-quarters of Monday’s scheduled flights to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and nearly half of those near Baltimore / Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport have been cleaned up, according to FlightAware. Both airports received more than six inches of snow.
Southwest Airlines had canceled about 600 flights, or 17% of Monday’s noon schedule. Spokesman Brad Hawkins said storms over the weekend and Monday affected the operations of some of its larger airports, including Chicago, Denver and Baltimore, and left planes and crews out of position.
United Airlines has said the national peak in COVID-19 caused by the omicron variant has affected its flight crews, resulting in canceled flights. Delta cited winter and omicron conditions, but said it expected less than half of the cancellations on Tuesday and Wednesday. American cited the storm in the Washington area and said the number of employees calling sick from COVID-19 was similar to the past few days, although he declined to give numbers.
SkyWest, a regional carrier that operates flights under the names United Express, American Eagle and Delta Connection, grounded more than 350 flights on Monday after cleaning up 500 on Sunday.
Thousands of miles away from snowstorms, Hawaiian Airlines said it had had to cancel several flights between the islands and across the Pacific due to understaffing.
Airlines are paying temporary bonuses to encourage pilots and flight attendants to collect flights left empty by colleagues with COVID-19. United will pay pilots three times their regular wages for taking open flights for most of January. Spirit Airlines has reached a deal with the union to pay double flight attendants through Tuesday.