Airlines may have thought their pandemic troubles were behind them in the fall as a coronavirus wave subsided and travelers increasingly took to the skies. But a new virus surge and winter storms have left the carriers and their passengers in a holiday mess.
Heading into the New Year’s weekend, when return flights will produce another crest in air travel, airlines have been canceling more than 1,000 flights a day to, from or within the United States. Carriers and their employees say the latest chapter of the pandemic, the Omicron variant, has cut deeply into the ability to staff flights, even though a vast majority of crew members are vaccinated.
“I’ve never seen a meltdown like this in my life,” said Angelo Cucuzza, the director of organizing at the Transport Workers Union, which represents flight attendants at JetBlue. “They just can’t keep up with the amount of folks that are testing positive.”
JetBlue has been one of the airlines hardest hit, canceling 17 percent of its flights on Thursday, according to the air travel data site FlightAware. The carrier said Wednesday that it would cut about 1,280 flights through mid-January, citing the rise in virus cases in the Northeast, where its operations and crews are concentrated.
And then there was the weather, always a volatile element in holiday travel but particularly challenging in recent days — notably in the Pacific Northwest, where heavy snowfall and record low temperatures grounded planes last weekend.
The next few days may be just as frustrating. Storms in Southern California and the Northwest could combine to dump snow on airline hubs in Denver and Chicago, with severe thunderstorms threatening Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, too, according to Dan DePodwin, director of forecast operations at AccuWeather.
Alaska Airlines, whose main hub is Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, went so far as to suggest that people put off nonessential travel until the new year. The carrier was hit hard again Thursday, with 14 percent of its flights canceled, as Seattle got more snow.
As many as 10 million people may fly from Thursday through Monday, according to Transportation Security Administration estimates. For months, airlines have been preparing reserves of workers for the holiday crush. But those measures were inadequate in a fast-changing situation, and many passengers were frustrated.
“Even though it’s been two years with Covid, it does not seem like they have this figured out,” said Sabine Malloy, whose plan to rendezvous with her boyfriend in Alaska to see the northern lights was upended on Tuesday when both their flights on Delta Air Lines — hers from Southern California, his from Denver — were canceled. Delta told them that it could not rebook them for several days, she said, so they canceled their plans — after her boyfriend had driven seven hours from South Dakota for his flight.
Trying to change plans before departing was also daunting. A traveler trying to rebook a family trip on American Airlines encountered a recording saying to expect a four-hour wait for a callback from an agent.
Some say airlines shoulder some of the blame for the turmoil. The industry received $54 billion in federal aid to keep workers employed throughout the pandemic, assistance that came with a ban on layoffs. But carriers were able to thin their ranks by offering buyouts and early-retirement packages to thousands of workers.
Airlines started hiring again as the travel rebound took off this year, but most have yet to fully restore their work forces: The industry employed nearly 413,000 people in October, down almost 9 percent from the same month in 2019, according to federal data. Airlines have had trouble turning a profit as passenger volumes remain about 15 percent below prepandemic levels.
The industry looked to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in recent days for a partial solution to its staffing problems, lobbying for the 10-day isolation period recommended for those infected with the coronavirus to be reduced to five days. Some scientists, unaffiliated with airlines, made a similar suggestion to bolster strained work forces in other realms, like hospitals.
On Monday, the C.D.C. shifted its guidance to five days of isolation for people whose symptoms have ended or are abating, followed by five days wearing a mask. The agency said the change was motivated by findings that the coronavirus was mostly transmitted one to two days before symptoms appear and two to three days afterward.
On Tuesday, in a memo seen by The New York Times, JetBlue told employees that it would expect those “who have no symptoms, or whose symptoms are improving, to come back to work after five days.” Crew members may remain on leave if they provide a doctor’s note, but they won’t be paid as if they were working, according to Mr. Cucuzza of the Transport Workers Union.
Asked for comment, JetBlue said, “The health and safety of our crew members and customers remains our top priority as we work through this pandemic.”
Delta is providing five days’ sick leave for infected workers, with two additional paid sick days if they choose to be tested on Day 5 and the results are positive.
The shorter isolation time is fueling a debate in the industry. The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants at 17 airlines, urged maintaining a 10-day isolation period in a letter to airlines on Tuesday.
“We believe this is the wrong move for aviation as it accepts that infectious people will be put back on the job or flying as passengers on our planes,” Sara Nelson, the union’s president, wrote. Several flight attendants interviewed expressed concerns that potentially contagious colleagues might return to work without being tested.
Airlines always prepare for turmoil, particularly around the holidays, when bad winter weather in one place can knock an entire system off balance. But the industry has been hit especially hard this year.
After two airlines, American and Southwest, canceled thousands of flights in October because of fierce weather and a brief shortage of air traffic controllers, they vowed to address the problems, offering bonuses to encourage employees to work throughout the holiday period, stepping up hiring and pruning flight plans. Both have avoided widespread cancellations this holiday season.
“We realized that we have got to make sure that we have staffing in place,” David Seymour, American’s chief operating officer, said in an interview. The airline recalled several thousand flight attendants from leave last month and this month and hired almost 600 more.
When chaos strikes, airlines engage in a complicated choreography to get out of it.
The main goal, airlines and aviation experts say, is to minimize the effect on passengers. But that’s easier said than done.
Alaska Airlines spent months laying plans for this holiday season, investing in staff and equipment to deal with the winter weather and lining up backup flight crews, according to Constance von Muehlen, its chief operating officer.
The airline managed staff calling in sick at high rates by offering extra pay for others to fill in, but sustained snowfall and record low temperatures in the Seattle area forced it to cancel nearly one-third of its flights on Sunday, about one-quarter on Monday and about one-fifth on Tuesday.
“Once you get your day off poorly, there’s nothing you can do to catch up,” Ms. von Muehlen said.
On Tuesday, the airline issued a stark announcement. Alaska would cut about 20 percent of flights out of Seattle in the coming days to allow extra time to de-ice planes. It also “strongly” urged customers to delay nonessential travel until after this weekend.
“Our values guided our decision,” she said. “We need to be as realistic as possible in what we will be able to operate and to let people know, as difficult as it is for us to do that.”
Getting flight crews in place can be especially tricky, with workers dispersed throughout the country and subject to various regulations. Flight attendants are generally required to have nine hours of rest between shifts, for example.
The Omicron variant has only confounded that already complicated process.
Capt. James Belton, a spokesman for the roughly 13,500 United Airlines pilots in the Air Line Pilots Association, confirmed that the variant is creating challenges.
“Our sick calls are above normal,” he said. Many pilots have helped fill gaps by picking up additional shifts, he said, but they are limited to flying 100 hours a month under federal law.
Operations on the ground are also being affected. The Federal Aviation Administration warned on Thursday that rising infections among employees, including air traffic control staff, might result in delays.
The Transportation Security Administration said that it was concerned about rising virus infections, too, but that it had adequate staffing. Average wait times in airport security lines were about five minutes in recent days, a spokesman said.
Getting through security, of course, is no guarantee that the rest of the trip will be smooth.
Elizabeth Barnhisel and her husband were heading off on a delayed honeymoon when a canceled connection forced an unexpected overnight layover on Tuesday at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Entering a baggage claim area, they found what looked like hundreds of bags lined up and crowds of miserable people — some crying, some napping, because they had been waiting so long for their bags.
Every few hours, someone would offer a different reason for the fiasco: frozen carousels, Omicron, weather. After about 10 hours, Ms. Barnhisel’s bag arrived from across the airport.
The couple eventually made it to their destination, Vancouver, but it was not the honeymoon experience Ms. Barnhisel had counted on. “We’re flabbergasted,” she said. “We definitely took a risk by taking this trip. But at the end of the day, we’ve got to get back to normal somehow.”
Lauren Hirsch contributed reporting.