Holiday Flight Cancellations: What’s Going On?

Holiday Flight Cancellations: What’s Going On?

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Airlines, particularly in the United States, are having a really rough time operationally at the moment. We saw thousands of flight cancellations around Christmas, and now we’re likely going to see thousands of flight cancellations around New Year’s as well. I’m grateful to not be flying at the moment, for a variety of reasons.

Just how bad is airline reliability at the moment, and what’s going on?

How many flight cancellations are we seeing?

In the past week we’ve already seen thousands of flights in the United States canceled and delayed. Unfortunately things haven’t been improving much as time goes on. For example, just pulling up data from Thursday, December 30, 2021 (which isn’t even going to be the busiest travel day in this period):

  • Alaska canceled 13% of its flights and delayed 48% of its flights
  • Allegiant canceled 20% of its flights and delayed 39% of its flights
  • American canceled 0% of its flights and delayed 19% of its flights
  • Delta canceled 6% of its flights and delayed 49% of its flights
  • Horizon (a regional carrier) canceled 20% of its flights and delayed 52% of its flights
  • JetBlue canceled 17% of its flights and delayed 39% of its flights
  • SkyWest (a regional carrier) canceled 11% of its flights and delayed 34% of its flights
  • Spirit canceled 8% of its flights and delayed 30% of its flights
  • United canceled 10% of its flights and delayed 34% of its flights

That’s just a small sample from one day, though other days have been just as bad. Perhaps the only surprising thing here is that American has been doing relatively well operationally.

American has been doing relatively well during this period

What’s causing holiday flight cancellations?

Since the start of the pandemic we’ve seen an endless number of operational meltdowns at airlines, especially during peak periods. So what’s impacting airline operations so heavily at the moment? It comes down to three primary factors, which I’ll share below (and I’m listing them roughly in the order in which I think they’re causing problems).

Staff shortages

Long story short, at the start of the pandemic airlines tried to become leaner and reduce their headcount, and they did that in part by offering employees (voluntary) early retirement and separation packages. Domestic demand for air travel has more or less fully recovered, and airlines haven’t been able to once again get staffing levels to where they need.

A large part of this problem is that pilots require a significant amount of training before they can get in the cockpit, and many weren’t flying during the pandemic. So getting the right pilots trained on the right aircraft can be a time consuming process, and doesn’t happen overnight. The same is true of flight attendants, but to a lesser extent (the training isn’t quite as long, and they’re not committed to just one aircraft).

So the first major issue is that airlines simply don’t have a lot of excess staff for peak holiday periods. While they can usually make things work during non-peak periods, it’s a different story at times like this…

Airlines barely have spare employees for when things go wrong

Omicron surge

With the omicron surge, we’re seeing people test positive at rates we’ve never seen before, and we haven’t even reached the peak yet. Not only do airlines not have many excess staff, but they also have employees testing positive for coronavirus at higher levels than ever before.

The omicron surge is impacting staffing levels at so many places, and that includes airlines.

Many airline employees are getting coronavirus, as you’d expect

Bad weather

In addition to staffing shortages and the omicron surge, we’re also seeing some adverse weather, including in the Pacific Northwest. This is one reason that Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air have seen so many delays and cancellations.

On top of that, we’ve seen an extremely strong jet stream, which has caused westbound flights to be longer than usual, and eastbound flights to be shorter than usual.

Alaska has been especially impacted by bad weather

When will airline operations improve?

If I had to guess, I’d say that things will be as bad as they currently are through at least Tuesday, January 4, 2021, since this is historically the period with some of the highest airline demand. It’s hard for airlines to “catch up” and improve things while we’re still at a peak demand period. We have seen airlines start to cancel some flights in advance. While not ideal, it at least means you’re less likely to show up at the airport and be stuck.

Personally I wouldn’t be surprised if things are pretty bad after that too. The good news is that demand drops off pretty significantly in early January after the holidays. The bad news is that I imagine we’ll see even more omicron cases, so even more airline employees will call in sick.

Airlines are some of the most complex businesses out there, so it’s important to emphasize just how much airlines can struggle to recover in situations like this, given the domino effect. For a flight to operate as planned, you need a full crew and the plane, and it can be tough to get planes and crews in the right places when operations are impacted to this level.

I’d expect operational issues for the next couple of weeks

My takeaways from these airline cancellations

A few different thoughts on my end. First of all, I’m not at all surprised to see airline operations be a mess right now. Even without omicron I would have expected that, and of course the number of cases is just exacerbating the problems.

Next, I find it particularly interesting that American has done pretty well operationally, while United hasn’t. American has historically been the least reliable of the “big three” carriers. It is worth noting that the airline has incentivized employees to have perfect attendance, which makes you wonder how many American employees are coming to work with coronavirus.

But United’s situation is interesting because United CEO Scott Kirby sent out an email several weeks ago almost bragging about how much more reliable United is than competitors, and promising that passengers can rely on United over the holidays. That hasn’t proven to be the case. That email read in part as follows:

I’ve heard from many of you in the past few weeks and I know you’re eager to return to travel — especially around the holidays. Many of you have asked if you can book with confidence on United this holiday season. And the short answer is, yes you can!

Lastly, this isn’t really a surprise, and I’m beating a dead horse here, but wasn’t the whole justification for airlines getting tens of billions of dollars in payroll support to ensure that airline employees will be ready to serve the public when demand returns? We’ve seen a countless number of operational meltdowns during the pandemic due to staff shortages, so it seems like that didn’t work particularly well.

While I can appreciate that the concept of not involuntarily furloughing employees was a priority, perhaps this money shouldn’t have been spent on trying to get people to accept separation packages, since that doesn’t exactly help with making sure that employees are ready to go when demand returns?

So much for all that payroll support…

Bottom line

Airlines are having a rather rough period operationally, and we’re seeing thousands of flights delayed and cancelled. The issues started before Christmas, and I’d expect them to continue at least through early 2022.

This comes down to a variety of factors — airlines are short staffed to begin with (at least during periods of peak demand), then the omicron surge is causing many airline employees to call in sick, and then there’s also bad weather in parts of the country.

If you’re traveling in the coming days, make sure you’re patient, and don’t expect to arrive at your scheduled time. Most importantly, be nice to the airline employees who are working — they don’t have easy jobs, they’re probably as frustrated as you are, and the operational issues aren’t their fault.

Have you been traveling by air during the holidays? If so, did you run into any disruptions?

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  1. Angelo Guest

    We returned home on Saturday night and would like to share something we discovered.

    You have probably heard about all the cancellations / worker shortages due to COVID. Well, there is something they (the media / government) is not telling you.

    Of course COVID is real and people (both vaccinated and unvaccinated) are getting sick, but what is the true reason behind staff shortages and cancellations?

    It is because the government / companies / hospitals...

    We returned home on Saturday night and would like to share something we discovered.

    You have probably heard about all the cancellations / worker shortages due to COVID. Well, there is something they (the media / government) is not telling you.

    Of course COVID is real and people (both vaccinated and unvaccinated) are getting sick, but what is the true reason behind staff shortages and cancellations?

    It is because the government / companies / hospitals don't want to spend the $$$.

    American Airlines (which we flew and is one one the biggest airlines in the world) implemented a policy from Thanksgiving on that any pilot / attendant / ground crew that wanted to work above their regular shift would be paid TRIPLE PAY (300% bonus) over their regular pay. From Thanksgiving through New Years American Airlines only had 3% cancellations due to mechanical problems or weather (and 3% is the normal rate going back decades). The American Airlines employees we talked to on all 4 of our segments (which went out right on schedule, no problems) said they had so many employees willing to work for triple pay to fill in for any workers sick with COVID that they had to turn them away.

    The other airlines (United, Delta, Southwest, ...) that refused to offer extra pay had to cancel tens of thousands of flights and are still trying to correct things. United finally on New Years Eve decided to do the same as American Airlines and offer their employees TRIPLE PAY to work extra shifts. Gee, it's funny how paying extra $$$ fixes the worker shortage problem. Hospitals were in the same boat but refuse to pay doctors / nurses / staff an extra bonus to cover for those that are out with COVID.

    So don't believe that all COVID related problems are not fixable - in the end it just comes down to being willing to spend the $$$.

    1. Jay Guest

      100% correct, you get what you pay for. One correction, the pilots turned down the extra money because they were too busy negotiating a new contract.... whatever.

  2. KeninDFW Guest

    We modified our travel plans and cancelled our flight to Atlanta and drive the 12 hours instead to minimize risk. Seeing aging family members who have made it this far isn’t worth risking their health. We’re so glad we drove this time given all the travel disruptions. We’d likely have to rent a car and drive home anyway given the numbers of cancelled/delayed flights. We experienced those issues during our 2 summer excursions. Reminded me of the 90’s. No thank you!

  3. josefina16 Guest

    What is odd is that Alaska Airlines cancelled flights out of SEA because (among other reasons), it was taking a long time to de-ice the planes. My United flight flew out on 12/28 with only 15-20 minute de-icing. It had been lightly snowing overnight. The airport was crowded and I was lucky my flight arrived at SFO mostly on time.

  4. Bob May Guest

    Lucky
    It is really apparent you never worked a real job that involved other members of a team and equipment.

    Your statement-"which makes you wonder how many American employees are coming to work with coronavirus" is not really relevant.

    If you are vaccinated and wear a mask and are still afraid in being in a public setting, stay home.

    That is the risk everyone takes leaving their home.

    1. Chuck Guest

      Afraid? No. Conscious of the risk that other people -- especially those who refuse to understand how viruses work and who fail to recognize their obligations to the group -- pose to my health? Absolutely.

  5. Josh Guest

    Here's what's really going on here.... During this pandemic the US government gave these airlines BILLIONS of dollars to pay staff to sit at home and collect a check, this happened for over a year.

    Once it was time for these people to be recalled back to work the majority of these folks had other jobs and were "double dipping" and had to make a choice over which job to keep. Most of the...

    Here's what's really going on here.... During this pandemic the US government gave these airlines BILLIONS of dollars to pay staff to sit at home and collect a check, this happened for over a year.

    Once it was time for these people to be recalled back to work the majority of these folks had other jobs and were "double dipping" and had to make a choice over which job to keep. Most of the flight attendants would call in sick, especially those on reserve and still get paid.

    This was the WORST mistake the US government has ever made was to allow people to sit at home getting paid! That's the reason for unemployment!

    Look at AA, they have good on time flights right now since most of their staff are getting special pay during the holiday period, once this ends, and it ends soon watch out for major delays and sick calls!

  6. ryan Guest

    Ben, just returned from St Regis Cairo and Oman’s two Alila hotels. Thankfully no flight cancellations, even on the AA leg. Drop me a line if you want some observations on those properties! Happy NY

  7. Meghan T Guest

    My flight was canceled! Supposed to fly MSP-SLC-OGG today (12/31) but last night thr MSP-SLC leg was canceled and no alternatives available to reach SLC in time for rest of the trip. Huge issues contacting anyone via chat or phone, then chat was no help at all and ended up selecting an alternative flight for 2 days later via web. But website was on the fritz and only part of the alternative trip was showing...

    My flight was canceled! Supposed to fly MSP-SLC-OGG today (12/31) but last night thr MSP-SLC leg was canceled and no alternatives available to reach SLC in time for rest of the trip. Huge issues contacting anyone via chat or phone, then chat was no help at all and ended up selecting an alternative flight for 2 days later via web. But website was on the fritz and only part of the alternative trip was showing up... hot mess! Finally 12 hours later got resolved via chat where someone was actually helpful! On a flight now for msp-ogg on Jan 2... crossing fingers!

    The whole experience was beyond frustrating and loosing 2 days of vacation and hotel costs suck (had just made final hotel payment a few days prior).

  8. Anonymous FA in Canada Guest

    As a flight attendant in Canada, I can almost guarentee you that flight attendants are coming to work with Coronavirus. My airline isn’t even incentivizing us to work during this holiday period, but I have many co-workers coming to work with symptoms, or having contact with somebody who tested positive. We need to pay our bills.

    With airlines now offering a cash bonus to not call in sick, 100% that incentivizes people to...

    As a flight attendant in Canada, I can almost guarentee you that flight attendants are coming to work with Coronavirus. My airline isn’t even incentivizing us to work during this holiday period, but I have many co-workers coming to work with symptoms, or having contact with somebody who tested positive. We need to pay our bills.

    With airlines now offering a cash bonus to not call in sick, 100% that incentivizes people to come to work with COVID. It’s extremely reckless on the airlines behalf.

  9. Another Lump Guest

    I noticed that you conveniently left out that staff shortages are also impacted by 1) firing staff because of vaccination status and 2) more people quit or don't want to work because it's as or more profitable to sit at home and collect benefits. These factors are impacting the entire economy, don't pretend like airlines are immune. Don't worry, I'm sure Joe has a plan to make it worse, like everything else he has touched.

    1. Harry Lochler Guest

      You can't quit your job and then collect unemployment benefits. Stop listening to Tucker Carlson talking points.

    2. Chris Guest

      But you can get fired for not getting vaccinated in several states and collect unemployment

    3. Chris Guest

      https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.nbcnews.com/news/amp/ncna1282768

    4. UA-NYC Guest

      Here's what no company or agency wants - a bunch of mouth breathing conspiracy-spouting anti-vaxxers ("I just want to read more on muh science!") on the payroll, given their increasing likelihood of getting Covid (5x) & ending up in a hospital (11x) vs. the vaccinated.

    5. Brian Hughes Guest

      In the case of United, 6 pilots out of 13,000 were fired for not following vaccination mandate. Stop making news where there is none. https://www.businessinsider.com/united-pilots%20fired%20after%20vaccine%20mandate-2021-12?amp

    6. KeninDFW Guest

      This is not true. Your state pays unemployment. The federal subsidy stopped in July 2021. If you quit or are fired then no unemployment. Stop lying it gets you nowhere.

  10. Steve Diamond

    One factor i would add is the demand, look at the TSA throughput numbers. Demand is back up to 2019 levels and are exceeding them on certain days. I flew on 12/17 and was shocked at the number of people in the two airports i was at it was nothing like i have ever seen before in 20+ years of flying.

    https://www.tsa.gov/coronavirus/passenger-throughput

  11. George Romey Guest

    One thing I can guarantee that come January 5 flights will be just as packed as over the holidays. There's only one season now in the airline industry-peak season. It's winter time. A time when people get colds, usually mild and not something that stops them from working. Not to mention what weather does to flight operations. If airline employees start calling in at the first sneeze or cough flight cancellations and delays will be...

    One thing I can guarantee that come January 5 flights will be just as packed as over the holidays. There's only one season now in the airline industry-peak season. It's winter time. A time when people get colds, usually mild and not something that stops them from working. Not to mention what weather does to flight operations. If airline employees start calling in at the first sneeze or cough flight cancellations and delays will be out of control. See how the "Karens" like it when they can't get home for three days.

    If one lives so much in fear of getting COVID I suggest they just stay home.

  12. Tim Dunn Gold

    The only real egg on their face goes to United whose CEO bragged that they would not be subject to the same factors that have influenced cancellations at other carriers.
    American and Southwest have both incentivized large portions of their employee groups not to call in sick so it is no surprise they have done better. There are plenty of anecdotal reports of flight attendants at American coughing and sneezing. It is probably not...

    The only real egg on their face goes to United whose CEO bragged that they would not be subject to the same factors that have influenced cancellations at other carriers.
    American and Southwest have both incentivized large portions of their employee groups not to call in sick so it is no surprise they have done better. There are plenty of anecdotal reports of flight attendants at American coughing and sneezing. It is probably not good public health policy to incentivize employees to show up for work in the middle of a pandemic. If you are sick, stay home.
    Delta also has a hub in Seattle with Alaska and both have had high rates of cancellation there for a week. Those that argue how much space SEA has for expansion should look at the operation; deicing takes far longer than in other cities because there isn't room for enough deicing space before planes head to the runway. At least one-third of Delta's cancellations involve Seattle and Alaska has been at double digit percentages of cancellations for a week.
    A line of storms rolled through Atlanta yesterday at the beginning of the day which destroyed Delta's on-time.
    JetBlue has now cancelled about 10% of its schedule for the next two weeks because they had no margin.
    The CDC's revised quarantine guidance from 10 to 5 days resulted in a near-immediate improvement in some carriers.
    Regional carriers did better than the rest of the industry at first but are now seeing higher numbers because of bad weather in multiple hubs. The US has had a fairly easy winter so far this year but that has changed. There will be much heavier rates of cancellation due to weather.

    1. James Guest

      “ There are plenty of anecdotal reports of flight attendants at American coughing and sneezing.”
      What a stupid comment. And so typically Tim Dunn to throw a comment out with zero backing.
      Right… because walking around Atlanta the other day, not a single delta flight attendant coughed… I assure you many many did.
      Delta incentivizes their flight attendants with extra pay, as well. Not at the same level as AA right now,...

      “ There are plenty of anecdotal reports of flight attendants at American coughing and sneezing.”
      What a stupid comment. And so typically Tim Dunn to throw a comment out with zero backing.
      Right… because walking around Atlanta the other day, not a single delta flight attendant coughed… I assure you many many did.
      Delta incentivizes their flight attendants with extra pay, as well. Not at the same level as AA right now, but acting like aa is the only airline out there offering extra pay for flight attendants to pick up a trip is just pure ignorance.
      AA pulled their schedule back after their October trouble. Delta and united did not.

    2. Tim Dunn Gold

      there are indeed published blog and chat comments about AAL flight attendants flying sick. Because you can't or don't read them doesn't make them less real.
      Do AA and other flight attendants fly sick at other times? Of course. but to somehow think that AA and WN are doing better than other airlines without considering that they are paying their employees NOT TO CALL IN SICK FOR A WHOLE MONTH is the height of...

      there are indeed published blog and chat comments about AAL flight attendants flying sick. Because you can't or don't read them doesn't make them less real.
      Do AA and other flight attendants fly sick at other times? Of course. but to somehow think that AA and WN are doing better than other airlines without considering that they are paying their employees NOT TO CALL IN SICK FOR A WHOLE MONTH is the height of not being able to see the forest for the trees.
      Other airlines have not provided bonuses for perfect attendance just during the holidays.
      JetBlue pilots were asked by management to agree to the same thing and they said no in part because they have grievances about the Northeast Alliance with American that they won't sweep under the rug.

      getting overtime pay is not the same as getting a bonus for not calling in sick for an entire month.

      and Delta, right now, is flying the lowest percentage of pre-covid capacity of the big 6 airlines.

      And companies of all sorts, esp. in the NE, are cutting services and closing in-person locations because of omicron. To somehow think that American employees - with multiple bases in the NE - are not being infected - is just plain naive.

    3. James Guest

      Stick to facts, tim. You have none today, per usual.
      Your usual “delta is awesome” even when they can’t run a holiday operation coupled with your usual “anything aa does is horrible” nonsense is tiresome.

    4. KeninDFW Guest

      Typical Scott Kirby, open mouth insert foot.

  13. GetToThePoints Guest

    They should pull flights from the schedule way in advance. Knowing what happens during the holidays they should have culled the available flights. P L A N ahead. That usually works better for everyone.

  14. 305 Guest

    And it’s not just airline staff calling out. Friend of mine was severely delayed on Monday due to PBI’s ATC having an omicron outbreak. Aircraft were held at origin for 3.5-4 hours, some flights cancelled

  15. NSS Guest

    So airlines being bailed out should have prevented variant transmission?

  16. Mike C Member

    The same thing has happened in Australia over the last week, although less prominent leading into this weekend. The furlough / redundancy dynamics here are different to the US and the airlines seem to have maintained their contact with former staff better. The cancellations have been attributed entirely to Omicron. In every state and territory people who test positive, and until recently had even passing contact were/are required by law to isolate or quarantine so...

    The same thing has happened in Australia over the last week, although less prominent leading into this weekend. The furlough / redundancy dynamics here are different to the US and the airlines seem to have maintained their contact with former staff better. The cancellations have been attributed entirely to Omicron. In every state and territory people who test positive, and until recently had even passing contact were/are required by law to isolate or quarantine so there is no hiding from covid-induced staff absences.

  17. Pete Gold

    So airlines shouldn’t boast about good times and performances, because certain web sites will then make them eat crow when times are bad?

    1. david Guest

      Significant snow storm headed to Southern Wisconsin and ORD. I had multiple flights canceled for Saturday
      and decided to leave Friday instead.

  18. Christine Guest

    Nice summary.

    I would also bring up the 5G adoption for early January. The FAA will ground stuff if they are not satisfied with the solution/workaround.

Featured Comments Most helpful comments ( as chosen by the OMAAT community ).

The comments on this page have not been provided, reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any advertiser, and it is not an advertiser's responsibility to ensure posts and/or questions are answered.

Chuck Guest

Afraid? No. Conscious of the risk that other people -- especially those who refuse to understand how viruses work and who fail to recognize their obligations to the group -- pose to my health? Absolutely.

2
Harry Lochler Guest

You can't quit your job and then collect unemployment benefits. Stop listening to Tucker Carlson talking points.

2
Andrew Gold

+1 for covering this!

1
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