NEW YORK — Flight cancellations that disrupted holiday travel stretched into Monday as airlines called off thousands more flights because crews were sick with COVID-19 during one of the year's busiest travel periods, and storm fronts added to the havoc.
Flight delays and cancellations tied to staffing shortages have been a constant this year. Airlines encouraged workers to quit in 2020, when air travel collapsed, and carriers have struggled to make up ground this year, when air travel rebounded faster than almost anyone had expected. The arrival of the omicron variant exacerbated the difficulties.
Since Friday, airlines have canceled more than 4,000 flights to, from or inside the U.S., with over 1,000 U.S. cancellations on Monday, according to FlightAware, which tracks flight cancellations.
“During the pandemic we have seen experienced airline personnel leave the industry and not return across the globe,” said John Grant, senior analyst at travel industry research firm OAG. “Filling those skill gaps was already a challenge in the recovery before the latest variant.”
Delta, United, JetBlue and American have blamed the coronavirus for staffing problems in the past several days. European and Australian airlines also canceled holiday-season flights because of infected staff, but weather and other factors played a role as well.
Winter weather in the Pacific Northwest led to nearly 250 flight cancellations to or from Seattle on Sunday, according to Alaska Airlines, which expected more than 100 flight cancellations Monday. But the airline said sick crews were no longer a factor.
United said it canceled 115 flights Monday, out of more than 4,000 scheduled, due to crews with COVID-19. Delta expected to cancel more than 200 flights out of its schedule of over 4,100, after scrapping more than 370 on Sunday, citing the effect of COVID-19 on crews and winter weather in Minneapolis, Seattle and Salt Lake City.
SkyWest, a regional airline based in Utah, said it had more cancellations than normal during the weekend and on Monday after bad weather affected several of its hubs and many crew members were out with COVID-19.
In a move that might help ease some of the industry's problems, U.S. health officials on Monday cut in half the recommended length of time a person should isolate after getting COVID-19 — to five days. Airlines had called on the Biden administration to shorten the quarantine period to alleviate staffing issues. The union for flight attendants pushed back, saying the isolation period should remain 10 days.
Representatives for the flight attendants union, the airlines and the industry's trade group did not immediately respond or declined to comment on the CDC change.
Air travel dropped steeply in 2020 and recovered throughout 2021. Transportation Security Administration data show that the number of passengers screened at TSA checkpoints during the holiday season went up significantly from last year — on some days double the number of fliers or even more. But the number is generally still short of 2019 levels.
The U.S. government requires foreigners coming to the U.S. to be vaccinated. It also requires a negative COVID-19 test for both U.S. citizens and foreigners flying into the country.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, said Monday that the nation should also seriously consider a vaccination mandate for domestic travel as another way to push people to get vaccinated.
The administration has at times considered a domestic vaccination requirement, or one requiring either vaccination or proof of negative test. Such a requirement could face legal challenges.
Associated Press writers Mike Stobbe in New York and Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this report.