‘Twas the night before Christmas and all though the Seattle area, the pandemic was delivering last-minute holiday challenges with canceled flights and a shortage of rapid coronavirus tests.
As of late Friday, airlines had reported 28 cancellations and 108 delays of scheduled flights into and out of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Christmas Eve, and 43 more cancellations and six delays for flights scheduled on Christmas Day, according to website FlightAware.
The cancellations represented 2% of all Sea-Tac Airport flights scheduled for Christmas Eve and 4% of flights scheduled for Christmas, according to FlightAware.
The flight disruptions come as a global surge of coronavirus infections from the omicron variant have left some airlines short-staffed and unable to accommodate all of the millions of holiday travelers hoping for a semi-normal holiday.
At the same time, many Seattle-area residents who wanted to double-check their coronavirus status before holiday travel, gatherings and other activities struggled to find rapid tests.
Although there were still plenty of openings around the region for PCR tests Friday, results from those tests can take one or more days; residents needing a quicker result from rapid-test kits often found empty shelves at local pharmacies.
“They go out like hotcakes,” said an employee at Bartell Drugs at Mercer Street and First Avenue North in Seattle on Friday afternoon. The employee, who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to comment, said the store had received a shipment of around 100 earlier in the week but had sold out of those in “about an hour.”
At the CVS in Wallingford, which was also sold out Friday, employee Shaun Lee said he now automatically answers the phone with an announcement that the location is “currently out of COVID tests” because “that’s what 99% of the calls we get are about.”
The flight cancellations and shortages of rapid-test kits both reflect the chaos from the highly transmissible omicron variant, which has exacerbated existing pandemic-related constraints on the economy.
The omicron variant also has contributed to the test shortage by slamming an already strained supply chain with new demand as people prepare for the holidays.
“We’ve never run out, until this last week,” said an employee at a downtown Seattle CVS. The employee, who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak to the media, attributed most of the demand to gatherings and “a lot of people traveling.”
In King County, the seven-day average of new infections was 778 as of Thursday, nearly triple the seven-day average of 268 on Dec. 9, according to the latest update to the county’s data dashboard.
Hospitalizations, in decline until recently, have crept up slightly in recent weeks, and deaths, which also were in decline, had remained flat, county data show. Both hospitalizations and deaths generally see about a two-week delay after infection trends change.
Many airlines attributed the disruptions to surging COVID-19 cases, which have left many short-staffed.
Passenger volumes at Sea-Tac Airport have surged over the last two weeks. The airport expects the number of arriving, departing and connecting passengers to average 124,000 a day for the week of Dec. 19-25 and 131,000 the following week, said Kate Hudson, Sea-Tac Airport communications manager, in an emailed statement. “This represents approximately 80-90% of the passenger volume we saw pre-pandemic in 2019,” said Hudson.
The busiest days of the holiday travel season are expected to be Dec. 27, with 139,000 travelers, and Dec. 30, with 136,000, Hudson said.
United Airlines said in a statement Thursday that it was canceling 120 flights on Friday because the omicron variant has had “a direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operation.”
Delta said in a statement that its teams had “exhausted all options and resources before canceling around 158 flights in Friday’s nearly 3,100-flight schedule” due to weather events and spiking omicron cases.
Thom Andretti and his wife, Elizabeth Tennent, of Seattle, were notified their Alaska Air flight from Seattle to Detroit on Sunday was canceled a few hours before their scheduled departure, but were able to find another flight. “We called pretty much immediately and they rebooked us for the next day on a 6 a.m. Delta flight,” Andretti said.
Sea-Tac’s Hudson recommended that affected travelers “contact their airline directly.”
Airlines reporting Sea-Tac Airport cancellations Friday included Delta, with 14, or 9% of its total scheduled flights into or out of Sea-Tac; United, with five (17%); Alaska, with five (1%); JetBlue, with two (33%); and Spirit, with two (50%), according to FlightAware.
The disruptions at Sea-Tac Airport come as airlines globally canceled some 3,000 flights scheduled for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, on top of 2,000 flights that were canceled Thursday, according to FlightAware. The website reported that more than a fifth of the flights canceled for Friday involved travel within, into or out of the United States.
As of 4:50 p.m. Friday, FlightAware was reporting 666 Friday cancellations across the U.S., and a total of 2,402 worldwide. The site was also reporting 561 U.S. cancellations for flights scheduled on Christmas and 121 for Sunday.
Others who were scrambling to meet surging demand on Christmas Eve: delivery drivers.
“I think it’s COVID … people are ordering more stuff online,” said Airron Ayson, a FedEx driver who was delivering packages a few blocks away from Seattle Center. “The past couple of weeks have been really, really busy.”
That was echoed by Randee, a United States Postal Service worker who was out with an armload of packages Friday afternoon. Randee, who declined to share her last name, said she had been working since 6 a.m. Friday and was expecting a 12-hour shift before she was done.
Still, she was looking forward to relaxing Christmas Day after more than a week without a break. “That’s going to be my first day off,” Randee said. “So I’m stoked.”
Information from The Washington Post was included in this report.