About 3,800 flights were canceled around the globe on Friday and Saturday, as the fast-spreading omicron variant of the coronavirus infected or quarantined crews and prompted some travelers to change their Christmas plans.
The last-minute airline disruptions complicated the holiday hopes of tens of thousands of travelers who had planned to gather with family or friends at the end of a second pandemic year. Others appeared to be reconsidering future travel as the highly contagious virus spreads, causing airlines to pare back flights for the coming months.
The website FlightAware reported that more than a quarter of the flights canceled for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day involved travel within, to or out of the United States, where the omicron variant has helped create a fifth wave of illness just in time for the holidays. Another 2,000 flights were canceled Thursday.
The seven-day average of new infections reached more than 186,000 per day Friday, according to data tracked by The Washington Post, surpassing the peak of the delta variant wave in late August and early September.
Carly McCullough, 23, said she would miss Christmas Eve baking cookies and decorating the tree with her family in Atlanta after Delta Air Lines canceled her 11:30 a.m. Friday flight from New York. She said the airline offered to rebook her on an afternoon flight with a stop in Cleveland, but she didn’t want an “all-day fiasco.”
“I don’t want to risk getting stuck in a different city,” McCullough said. Her new plan is an 8 a.m. flight Christmas Day and a Christmas Eve spent wandering the city.
Others scrapped travel plans entirely. Elizabeth Horton, an archaeologist in Northern Virginia, was planning to fly Friday to Missouri to see family, after avoiding planes throughout the pandemic for fear of infecting her parents, who are in their 80s.
She booked her ticket in early December. “And then with the new variant coming in, it was like, ‘Oh, you know what? No,’ ” Horton said. She will join the family festivities over Zoom.
“I hate this so much,” she tweeted Tuesday after canceling her flight.
Some of the international flight cancellations did not appear to be related to the pandemic, and the overall disruption was modest. But in the United States, the cancellations struck during one of the busiest travel periods in two years. Some people who spent last year’s holidays at home – before vaccines were rolled out for most people – were willing to venture to airports after enduring nearly two years of restrictions.
The Transportation Security Administration reported that almost 2.2 million people went through security screening at airports on Thursday – nearly as many as in 2019, and almost three times as many as last year on the same day. From Dec. 16 to Dec. 23, more than 2 million people passed through checkpoints almost every day – about double the number recorded on the same days last year.
Bob Mann, an airline industry analyst and former airline executive, said there are typically 20,000 flights a day in the United States and 115,000 airline flights globally on a peak day – a figure that does not include business jets and general aviation aircraft operators.
“It’s more than it should be; it’s more than anybody wanted it to be,” Mann said of the cancellations. “But you know, it’s not the end of the Earth.”
“If it’s your flight, it is the end of the Earth,” he added.
United Airlines said in a statement Thursday that it would cancel 120 flights on Friday because the variant has had “a direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operation.” By midday Friday, FlightAware said about 190 flights were canceled.
Delta Air Lines said its teams had “exhausted all options and resources – including rerouting and substitutions of aircraft and crews to cover scheduled flying.” On Friday morning, Delta said it had canceled 135 Christmas Eve flights because of weather and staffing problems but still had nearly 3,100 scheduled for the day.
American Airlines spokesperson Derek Walls said Friday the company is not experiencing a greater-than-usual number of cancellations.
Domestic airlines have asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to scale back the isolation time for vaccinated personnel with breakthrough infections, as the agency did Thursday for health-care workers. But CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund said in an email Friday that “at this time, the only updated guidance on reducing isolation time is for health care workers.”
Foreign carriers such as Lufthansa, Scandinavian Airlines and Japan-based ANA said they had also canceled small numbers of long-haul flights, either because of illness and exposure among crews, or declining demand.
Tal Muscal, a spokesman for Lufthansa, said the German airline has canceled 33,000 flights through March based on falling demand in the new pandemic wave. But “we’re mainly operating our normal flight operations throughout the holiday,” he said, adding that only about a dozen flights are canceled over the next two weeks.
When compared with flight cancellations this summer and fall, the Christmas schedule disruption “is really small,” said aviation analyst Henry Harteveldt. Of course, he added, “if your flight is the one that’s been canceled, the world has just ended. This is not a meltdown, as some have described it, but it is unfortunate.”
He said he anticipates similar cancellation spikes for the next few weeks, as long as the omicron wave lasts. “The airlines took a lot of steps to ensure their airlines would be healthy and to reduce the risk that covid would disrupt their operations, but you can’t build impenetrable walls,” he said.
U.S. airlines already have scaled back international flights because of travel restrictions to and from other countries, he said.
The White House announced Friday that President Joe Biden would lift restrictions on travel to eight countries in southern Africa on Dec. 31, citing new understanding of the omicron variant’s risks and spread.
Biden made the decision on the recommendation of the CDC, which cited evidence that coronavirus vaccines are effective at preventing severe disease from omicron, said a senior administration official.
“According to our health and medical experts at the CDC, the value of country-based international travel restrictions is greatest early in an outbreak, before the virus or variant has been widely disseminated,” the White House said in a statement. “This value declines as domestic transmission starts to contribute a larger proportion of case burden.”
Biden placed the travel restrictions on eight southern African nations thought to be the epicenter of the omicron outbreak on Nov. 26, citing the new variant’s unknown nature. They barred most non-U.S. citizens from traveling to the United States if they had recently been in Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
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The Washington Post’s Dan Diamond, Amanda Finnegan, Gabe Hiatt and María Luisa Paúl contributed to this report.