When will flyers get relief from omicron-driven flight cancellations?

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Analysts expect the spate of omicron-driven flight cancellations that afflicted airlines and travelers alike over the holidays to settle down during the far quieter travel days of January.

Still, with airline personnel call-outs likely to remain high for the remainder of the omicron-driven Covid-19 case spike, flyers could still see more cancellations than normal in the coming weeks. 

"Though I have no way of knowing for sure, my guess is that January is going to be tough, punctuated by various shortages, depending upon which workgroups in what locations are most impacted at any given time," analyst Brett Snyder predicted in his Cranky Flier blog

Flyers traveling over the past week for Christmas and New Year's holidays were forced to endure a string of days in which 1,000 or more U.S. flights were canceled.

Cancellation rates, which hovered around the 1% mark in 2019, soared to approximately 6% during the heart of this holiday season. United, Delta, American, JetBlue, Spirit, Allegiant and Alaska all canceled flights at rates above or well above their norms. 

Airlines blamed staff calling in sick due to omicron infections for the failings, in some cases alongside weather. Alaska Airlines in particular was hit hard by a long and unusual burst of winter weather in its home base of Seattle.

Alaska Air canceled nearly 30% of its mainline flights on Dec. 26. Then, during the middle of the following week, the airline took the unusual step of urging flyers to consider postponing their trips until after the holidays as another weather front led it to proactively trim its schedule by 20%

It's not all omicron's fault

While omicron-related call-outs, coupled with winter storms, were the most transparent causes of the holiday flight cancellations, critics said that inadequate staffing by airlines once again played a role, just as it did during operational meltdowns endured by travelers on Spirit, Southwest and American during episodes over the late summer and fall.

"Part of it is omicron, and I think part of it is the airlines," said George Ferguson, senior aerospace and airlines analyst for Bloomberg Intelligence. 

"Maybe airlines had enough staff, but barely, and then this late surge comes in and knocks down an aggressive schedule."

Dennis Tajer, spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, a union representing American pilots, offered a similar viewpoint. 

Maybe airlines had enough staff, but barely, and then this late surge comes in and knocks down an aggressive schedule.– George Ferguson, Bloomberg Intelligence analyst

"It's a combination," he said, referencing both call-outs due to omicron and staffing levels. "They have, coming into this, been thinly staffed, and they are trying to fly a robust schedule."

Ferguson said that with business travel still less than half of what it was pre-pandemic, the airline industry finds itself managing more pronounced peaks and valleys than in the past. Demand ebbs more than it did in the past during periods in which business travel was once the bread and butter of network carriers, then jumps closer to pre-Covid levels during peak leisure travel periods, including holidays. 

Carriers, meanwhile, are more reliant than ever on those peak leisure flying periods, and so they are highly motivated to ramp up schedules to meet the demand surges, which makes staffing an even bigger challenge. 

"I just think that it's trickier and trickier to run an airline," Ferguson said. 

Still, he said that with airlines dealing with reduced demand in January as leisure travelers return to work and school, cancellation numbers should drop, even while the omicron wave continues to play out. 

Shorter quarantines could help

Carriers should also have their scheduling challenges abated somewhat by recent CDC guidance, which reduced the quarantine period for people who test positive for Covid-19 from 10 days down to five, as long as the individual is symptom-free. 

Airlines were among the industries that lobbied for the new guidance, with Delta leading the way just ahead of the Christmas weekend, when it began to cancel flights in response to omicron call-outs. 

But even with the new guidance, airlines will still find it challenging to prepare for the ongoing surge of sick calls. As a result, the cancellation count, even if lower than during the holidays, could remain above normal. 

"When you are operating with very little buffer, it doesn't take much to show up," Tajer said. 

Snyder said shortened quarantines should relieve some pressure, but not all of it. 

"The key metric is still how many people end up testing positive," he said. "If they're out for five days, that's better, but they're still out for five days."

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