United and Delta’s Holiday Cancellation Crisis Was Inevitable

America's biggest airlines have canceled hundreds of flights due to staff shortages

United and Delta’s Holiday Cancellation Crisis Was Inevitable
Tim Gouw/Unsplash

“I’ve heard from many of you in the past few weeks and I know you’re eager to return to travel — especially around the holidays,” United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby wrote in a letter to employees in November. “Many of you have asked if you can book with confidence on United this holiday season. And the short answer is, yes you can!”

Fast forward to the single busiest travel days of the year leading up to Christmas and, according to FlightAware, United has already cancelled 170 flights for Friday and another 63 for Christmas Day. So the short answer is apparently more like, “no, you kinda can’t.”

So, what exactly is going on?

According to a new report from View From the Wing, on top of dealing with the Omicron surge, the airline is also experiencing staffing shortages, particularly of the pilot variety. While it has not been independently verified by the airline, “aviation watchdogJonNYC tweeted on November 23, “Lots going on.. but in a nutshell/ 300+ pilots out without pay due to non vaccinated religious exemption..”

“The nationwide spike in Omicron cases this week has had a direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operation. As a result, we’ve unfortunately had to cancel some flights and are notifying impacted customers in advance of them coming to the airport,” United has said. Since, affected passengers have received notifications that have been updated to read, “Your flight is cancelled due to an increase in Covid cases limiting crew availability.” All of this despite Kirby’s steadfast adherence to the vaccine mandate and 99.7 percent of United’s workforce being inoculated to date.

But they’re not the only ones. Predictably, Delta, too, has canceled 143 flights on Thursday and another 103 on Christmas Day — more even than United.

Per a new report from Skift, Delta has cited both inclement weather and the Omicron variant as the reasons for their meltdown in operations. “[We’ve] exhausted all options and resources — including rerouting and substitutions of aircraft and crews to cover scheduled flying — before canceling around 90 flights for Friday,” the Atlanta-based airline said.

This news arrives after Delta CEO Ed Bastian put in a formal request to the head of the CDC earlier this week to “shrink quarantine guidelines for fully vaccinated individuals who experience breakthrough COVID-19 infections,” according to TravelPulse, citing — you guessed it — “the impact on the carrier’s workforce.” He suggested that the current isolation period be reduced from 10 days to five.

“With the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, the 10-day isolation for those who are fully vaccinated may significantly impact our workforce and operations,” Bastian said. “Similar to healthcare, police, fire, and public transportation workforces, the Omicron surge may exacerbate shortages and create significant disruptions.”

All of this to say: The signs were there. Existing shortages coupled with this latest wave of the highly transmissible Omicron variant mean it was all but a sure thing. That said, it doesn’t make being stranded in an airport or away from family on Christmas an easier pill to swallow. If you’ve got plans to fly over the next few days, be safe, check the status of your flight before you leave for the airport, and may the odds be ever in your favor.


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