US airlines called off more than 1,000 flights on Sunday as crews were grounded amid surging Covid-19 infections, causing misery for thousands of Christmas travelers.
Commercial airlines had canceled 1,001 flights within, into or out of the US by mid-afternoon, according to the flight-tracking website FlightAware.com.
It was a third straight day of traveling pain and more cancellations were likely as Covid infections soar, driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant.
A total of 997 flights were scrapped on Christmas Day and nearly 700 on Christmas Eve. Thousands more were delayed.
Enjoli Rodriguez, 25, whose Delta flight from Los Angeles to Lexington, Kentucky, was canceled on Christmas Eve due to staffing shortages, was one of the thousands still stranded on Sunday. Delta rebooked her on a flight that connected in Detroit, but that flight was delayed so she missed the connection to Lexington.
Speaking from the Detroit airport, Rodriguez said she was surrounded by angry passengers, flustered airline representatives and families with young children.
“I’ve run into a lot of people sharing their horror stories here. We’re all just stuck in Michigan, Detroit, heading different places,” Rodriguez told Reuters. She was rebooked on a flight to Kentucky that would hopefully end her days-long journey.
Mason Herlocker waited at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey to pick up his girlfriend, who was coming in from Paris. Her flight was delayed for four hours. It took her five hours to get a Covid-19 test the day before, in order to enter the US. Herlocker said he feared that she would get stuck if she doesn’t have a negative test before trying to return to France.
The Christmas holidays, typically a peak time for travel, coincided with a rapid spread of the Omicron variant. Infections have risen sharply in many parts of the US, with the New York health department warning on Friday of a “startling” four-fold increase in hospital admissions for children under 18 since the week beginning 5 December.
Poor weather in some areas also contributed to air travel problems. Los Angeles international airport said a “storm-related electrical issue” forced a partial closure of Terminal 5, causing passengers to divert to other terminals.
“Cancellations and delays are possible, so it will be important to check your flight status today if flying through Terminal 5,” LAX tweeted.
“Winter weather in portions of the US and the Omicron variant continued to impact Delta’s holiday weekend flight schedule,” a spokesperson for that airline said, adding that it was working to “reroute and substitute aircraft and crews to get customers where they need to be as quickly and safely as possible”.
United Airlines had to cancel around 100 flights on Sunday, a spokesperson said, adding that the company was working to rebook the impacted passengers.
“Importantly, 25% of customers whose travel was interrupted were able to rebook on flights that allowed them to get to their final destination earlier than they otherwise would have,” United spokeswoman Maddie King said in an email.
Winter weather was another factor negatively affecting the flights. A spokesperson for Southwest Airlines said all their cancellations were weather related.
The US airports most heavily impacted by the cancellations were in Seattle, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Dallas-Fort Worth and JFK International in New York.
A White House official, who asked not to be named, said despite the mess at some airports, “we’re in a better place than last Christmas” and noted that “only a small percentage of flights are affected”.
“But any cancellations can be a pain and delay reunions with family and friends, so the transportation department and the FAA are monitoring this closely,” the official said, referring to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Omicron was first detected in November and now accounts for nearly three-quarters of US cases and as many as 90% in some areas. The average number of new US cases has risen 45% to 179,000 per day over the past week.
While research suggests Omicron produces milder illness and a lower rate of hospitalizations than previous iterations, officials have maintained a cautious outlook.
In other economic developments, a second Christmas in the shadow of Covid saw holiday sales rise at the fastest pace in 17 years, even as shoppers grappled with higher prices, product shortages and Omicron, according to one spending measure.
Mastercard Spending Pulse, which tracks payments including cash and debit cards, reported that sales were up 8.5% from a year earlier. It had expected a 7.4% increase.
The results, which covered 1 November through 24 December, were fueled by purchases of clothing and jewelry. Holiday sales were up 10.7% compared with the pre-pandemic 2019 holiday period.