Flight disruptions triggered by weather and coronavirus-related staffing shortages eased slightly Tuesday, but they still amounted to more than 1,100 cancellations, stranding holiday travelers across the country as many try to return home.
The cancellations were down from Sunday and Monday, when more than 1,400 flights – including domestic trips and flights in and out of the United States – were scrubbed each day, according to FlightAware.
Across the country, airlines are trying to reschedule hundreds of delayed and canceled trips for passengers scrambling to get home after the holidays. The fast-spreading omicron variant of the coronavirus began to overwhelm airlines just before Christmas, teaming up with pockets of wintry weather to disrupt flight schedules as millions of Americans traveled to visit family.
As the disruptions have dragged on, passengers have complained of multiple cancellations and difficulties in reaching customer service agents. When Sun Country Airlines tweeted a message to thank passengers for their patience, Ryan Boser unleashed keystrokes of fury over the frustrated hours he spent trying to reschedule a flight.
Boser, his fiancee, two young daughters and infant son experienced a cancellation, an additional layover during a rescheduled Delta flight and multiple delays during their Friday trip into Minneapolis-St. Paul from Seattle to visit Boser’s father.
The family members checked that their return journey home on Sun Country was on track Tuesday before Boser’s father drove them to the airport. When they tried to check in, they learned the flight had been canceled.
“I just drove an hour through the snow with three young kids for a canceled flight,” he tweeted.
More than 2 million people flew Monday, according to the Transportation Security Administration – a robust figure in the pandemic era, and a continuing sign that the virus is not deterring people from boarding planes.
The cancellations come as the travel industry attempts to recover from a pandemic that choked off air travel, forcing airlines to rely on tens of billions of dollars in federal aid. With passenger counts over the Thanksgiving holiday approaching 90% of 2019 levels, airlines were optimistic about a continuing December rebound, only to be caught flat-footed by the virus’ latest variant.
Some possible relief came Monday as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shortened the recommended isolation period for fully vaccinated employees from 10 days to five, helping crew members resume work more quickly. Airlines had lobbied for the change last week.
Delta Air Lines, which led the industry’s push for the change, said it was working to implement the new guidance and that it should provide more flexibility to schedule crews.
“This is a safe, science-based and more practical approach based on what we now know about the omicron variant,” said Henry Ting, the airline’s chief health officer.
Nonetheless, the airline said it expected to cancel 250 of its 4,133 scheduled flights Tuesday.
Southwest Airlines, which said it canceled about 80 flights Tuesday because of bad weather, said it’s working with medical experts to fully understand the CDC’s new standards.
Unions expressed concern about changing the standards, which apply to people who are asymptomatic. Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said she worried the CDC had set a guideline that was closely aligned with the requests of business leaders.
“If any business pressures a worker to return to work before they feel better we will make clear it is an unsafe work environment, which will cause a much greater disruption than any ‘staffing shortages,’ ” Nelson said in a statement.
It’s not clear how much of a difference the policy change will make because airlines haven’t disclosed details about caseloads among employees. Some airlines, as well as the TSA and Federal Aviation Administration, say that while they have seen a surge in cases, their operations haven’t been affected.
United Airlines reported 93 canceled flights Tuesday – 22 fewer than Monday – out of 4,000 scheduled flights. The cancellations were related to staffing issues caused by the omicron variant, the company said.
“We’re sorry for the disruption and are working hard to rebook as many people as possible and get them on their way during the holidays,” the airline said in a statement.
Several airlines continued to struggle, according to FlightAware. But as was the case Monday, Alaska Airlines and regional carrier SkyWest Airlines were hard hit, while Seattle-Tacoma International Airport saw a third day of heavy cancellations after Sunday snowfall.
Kate Hudson, a spokeswoman for the airport, said airlines were still feeling “ripple effects” from the bad weather. The FAA has periodically halted flights to manage the volume of traffic, she said.
“The airlines are working super hard to get passengers rebooked and reunited with their luggage,” Hudson said. “We know it’s been super exasperating for travelers.”
Animator Andy Wilson, 54, was supposed to fly Tuesday from Atlanta to the San Francisco Bay area via Seattle. He said he learned his Alaska Airlines flight was canceled Monday and had been trying in vain to reach the airline by phone.
“It’s just crazy to me I can’t get through on a phone call,” Wilson said.
He had flown to Atlanta to see his dying father, but said he’s eager to get home to his wife and their 2-month-old baby.
“We’ll see when I get home,” Wilson said.
For Boser, the first flight he was able to rebook was at 6 a.m. Friday – a three-day delay that he said will mean more days away from work.
“I’m just hoping we get out Friday at this point,” he said.
Vicki Tsang, her husband Evan, son Sam, 13, and elderly poodle Sausage tried unsuccessfully to leave Seattle, waking up at 3 a.m. Tuesday to catch a flight back to Burbank, Calif.
The family had visited relatives for the first time since the pandemic. Fearful of the omicron variant, Tsang had booked business-class tickets to give the family more distance from other passengers.
They arrived at the Seattle airport and checked the Alaska Airlines app. The flight was canceled.
“We got no notification, no text, no emails, and we have yet to have any contact from Alaska Airlines on it,” Tsang said.
A line wrapped around as people tried to get answers from Alaska representatives. The packed conditions during a pandemic led Tsang and her family to go back to their hotel and try to get through to someone over the phone or online.
Phone calls were disconnected or put on hold. The app directed them to an online portal that crashed. It was a black hole of communication, Tsang said.
Constance von Muehlen, chief operating officer and executive vice president of Alaska, said in a statement the airline is “working hard to reposition aircraft and crews back to the West Coast to get everyone where they need to be as quickly and safely as possible.”
As room service came to the room they were supposed to have checked out of, Tsang said she realized they likely would not make it onto a Tuesday flight. They investigated other options, such as driving 1,200 miles back home.