Airlines cancel, delay thousands more flights due to omicron, staff shortages

At least 2,400 flights were canceled around the world on Monday, including about 880 flights in the U.S., as the nation’s travel woes extended into the post-Christmas workweek amid the rapid spread of the omicron variant.

There were also more than 6,500 flights delayed globally, according to the flight-tracking website FlightAware. That included 1,735 total delays of flights within, into or out of the U.S. 

The latest COVID-19 variant upended holiday plans for tens of thousands of travelers over the weekend. Airlines canceled hundreds more flights on Sunday, citing staffing problems tied to COVID-19. 

Delta, United and JetBlue had all said Friday that the omicron variant was causing staffing problems leading to flight cancellations. United spokesperson Maddie King said staffing shortages were still causing cancellations and it was unclear when normal operations would return. 

"This was unexpected," she said of omicron's impact on staffing. 


FILE - Travelers wait in line to check-in at LaGuardia Airport in New York, on Dec. 24, 2021. (Photo by YUKI IWAMURA/AFP via Getty Images)

According to FlightAware, the three airlines canceled more than 10% of their scheduled Saturday flights. American Airlines also canceled more than 90 flights Saturday, about 3% of its schedule, according to FlightAware. American spokesperson Derek Walls said the cancellations stemmed from "COVID-related sick calls." 

European and Australian airlines have also canceled holiday-season flights because of staffing problems tied to COVID-19.

For many travelers, that meant time away from loved ones, chaos at the airport and the stress of spending hours standing in line and on the phone trying to rebook flights.

Flight delays and cancellations tied to staffing shortages have been a regular problem for the U.S. airline industry this year. Airlines encouraged workers to quit in 2020, when air travel collapsed, and were caught short-staffed this year as travel recovered.

To ease staffing shortages, countries including Spain and the U.K. have reduced the length of COVID-19 quarantines by letting people return to work sooner after testing positive or being exposed to the virus.

Delta CEO Ed Bastian was among those who have called on the Biden administration to take similar steps or risk further disruptions in air travel. On Thursday, the U.S. shortened COVID-19 isolation rules for health care workers only.

Meanwhile, omicron continues to cast more gloom as New Year celebrations approach. Several countries are considering more restrictions to add to the patchwork of lockdowns and other measures already in place around Europe.

And the top U.S. infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, warned on Monday that with the rise of the highly contagious omicron, "it’s going to get worse before it gets better."

"We don’t expect things are going to turn around in a few days to a week. It likely will take much longer than that, but that’s unpredictable," he said on ABC.

But with indications that omicron might be a milder variant despite its extraordinary ability to infect people, politicians were caught in a bind over whether to spoil yet another party or play it safe to make sure health care systems don't collapse.

Further complicating matters was the lack of full data over the Christmas weekend, which made it more difficult to chart omicron's course.

This story was reported from Cincinnati. The Associated Press contributed.