Flight cancellations that disrupted holiday travel stretched into Monday with thousands of U.S. flights spiked during one of the year's busiest travel periods because of crews out sick with COVID-19 and now storm fronts creating more 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 have struggled to make up ground this year when air travel rebounded faster than almost anyone had expected.
With the arrival of the omicron variant, that staffing shortage has led to thousands of canceled flights over the four days. According to FlightAware, which tracks flight cancellations, airlines have canceled more than 4,000 flights to, from or inside the U.S. since Friday, with over 1,000 U.S. cancellations on Monday.
Delta, United, JetBlue and American have all said that the coronavirus was causing staffing problems, and European and Australian airlines also canceled holiday-season flights because staff were infected, 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, said Alaska Airlines, and the airline expects more than 100 flight cancellations Monday. But it says that crew calling out sick because of COVID-19 is no longer a factor.
Airlines have called on the Biden administration to shorten the guidelines for the isolation period for vaccinated workers who get COVID-19, in order to ease staffing shortages. The union for flight attendants has pushed back against that, saying the isolation period should remain 10 days.
Air travel dropped steeply in 2020 and has recovered throughout 2021. Transportation Security Administration data show passengers screened at TSA checkpoints during the holiday season up significantly from last year — on some days double the number of fliers or even more — but generally still short of 2019 levels.
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The U.S. government requires vaccinations of foreigners coming to the U.S. as well as a negative COVID test of both U.S. citizens and foreigners flying into the country. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, said on Monday that the U.S. 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.