Good Luck Trying to Fly Right Now

Good Luck Trying to Fly Right Now
Photo: Christof Stache, Getty Images

Flying during the holiday season is already stressful enough, but the rampant spread of the Omicron variant is quickly making people’s travel plans even more hellish. More than 2,500 flights have been cancelled on Tuesday alone, according to the airline tracking website FlightAware, with over 5,500 more delayed across the board. It’s likely that we’ll see even more delays and cancelations before the day’s end.

On Monday, for example, airports across the globe reported a whopping 16,562 delays total, with close to half (8,053) involving U.S. flights. Cancellations clocked in at 3,260 across the globe, with close to half (1,474) involving U.S. flights. These figures follow the roughly 6,000 flights reportedly cancelled between Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and the day after Christmas.

No matter how you slice it, these cancelations are coming at the least opportune time for travellers. Air travel spikes every year during the holiday travel season between mid-December to early January, with tens of millions of passengers booking flights across the U.S. during this span. For context, the TSA reported processing about 2 million passengers per day during this week in 2019. While those numbers dipped in 2020, the TSA has reported similar figures again this year.

Omicron cases are a major factor driving this year’s rash of cancellations. United Airlines told pilots over the weekend that the company was facing a rising case count among the company’s pilots, with a “high number of pilots on the sick list,” and currently stuck in quarantine. Delta Airlines, JetBlue, and American Airlines have also reported a fresh wave of sick calls from staffers, leaving the companies with no choice but to cancel hundreds of flights apiece.

In a Sunday message to pilots obtained by CNBC, Bryan Quigley, United’s senior vice president of flight operations, wrote that over the course of the pandemic, United was able to “absorb” the reduced staffing “because we had a significantly reduced schedule.”

“Now as we approach 2019 flying levels, we must do all we can to ensure we are protected so that we can fly the schedule,” he went on.

The CEOs of some major airlines, including Delta, had previously pushed back against the CDC’s recommended 10-day quarantine period for those exposed to COVID-19. This week, the CDC budged, swapping the previous guidelines for potentially dangerous) new ones that say individuals only need to quarantine for five days, not 10, if they’re asymptomatic.