Omicron Begins to Wreak Havoc on Airline Schedules


And how was YOUR holiday weekend? If you were flying, well, chances are higher than usual that you had to deal with some ugliness. Another holiday, another meltdown. Was it a pilot shortage? Spiking sick calls? General COVID issues? Yes, yes, and yes.

This isn’t your typical pilot shortage, and it’s not a labor action with increased sick calls. We’ve seen all that before, but this, well, this is something new. You know how the Omicron variant is more transmissible? Well, it seems that some airlines don’t have enough buffer to weather to growing storm of infections as they race through front line employees.

I took a look at cancellations on the 23rd through mid-day on the 25th in masFlight. Is this a complete picture? No, but that doesn’t matter. You can see how this is beginning to unfold, and it is probably only going to get worse.

Holiday Weekend Completion Factor by Marketing Carrier

Data via masFlight

I suppose I should start by giving a shout out to American. Somehow, it has avoided having a shortage, and it is running a stellar operation… for now. I expect no airline will be left untouched in the next month.

But at the other end, we have the four problem children who canceled at least 5 percent of flights. It had been more like 10 percent of mainline for United and Delta, and that is not good. Allegiant and JetBlue aren’t usually beacons of operational success anyway, but they are doing extra poorly here. That is particularly awful for Allegiant passengers since there are often very few if any options in those thin markets when a flight cancels.

Of all the airlines hit hard, however, it’s United that gets the biggest black eye. And why is that? United was happily crowing about how great its operation was, and how having a vaccine requirement would provide more operational reliability. In the long run, this is likely true, but Omicron seems happy infecting just about everyone these days, and it is indeed United’s turn for a meltdown of sorts.

(Side note: To avoid some crazy anti-vax rants, I’ll point out that the vaccinated will mostly encounter mild symptoms, and it won’t feel like much more than a cold or flu. The vaccine works, but government rules around isolation prevent crews from working even with mild illness. But I digress….)

United has, at least, been very proactive in notifying about the cancellations, and it has been very clear in explaining the reasons, but that’s no consolation for someone stuck in an airport. That being said, there is a little silver lining here. A look at the cancellations by fleet type shows that United is really struggling primarily in the 737 fleet.

United Cancellations by Fleet Type

Data via masFlight

That’s good in that it’s more isolated, but it also means United can try to replace some 737 flights with fewer flights on bigger airplanes. All hope is not lost, but it is still a tough go for travelers.

Meanwhile, Delta is following a time-honored tradition by melting down on a holiday. It’s really not a real holiday unless Delta melts down, right? Here’s that airline’s fleet breakdown.

Delta Cancellations by Fleet Type

Data via masFlight

This is a tougher breakdown, because it does not seem isolated by fleet in the same way. I’m sure Delta can still try to move things around and upgauge where able, but this isn’t going to be as easy for the airline.

The bad news is that this isn’t likely going to go away anytime soon. Omicron is racing through the population, and if trends in South Africa are any indication, it will be a swift spike followed by a decline soon enough. But there are complicating factors, most notably that the CDC still says isolation is needed for 10 days from the onset of symptoms or positive test. That really hamstrings an airline’s operation.

We should have known Delta would be melting down last week, because it was the first airline to publicly lobby the CDC to change its rules from 10 days down to 5, which would alleviate the burden when an employee tests positive. JetBlue and the lobbying group A4A followed, but AFA, the flight attendant union, is pushing back. Either way, the glacial pace at which government moves probably means that a change won’t happen soon enough to avoid the pain that’s coming.

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. But I would think that by the end of January, things should be in a better place… just in time for the next big travel period in mid-February when early spring break begins. And then on March 14, watch out for the next variant Pi to show up. That’s the next letter in the Greek alphabet.

So, once again, hold on. It’s going to be a bumpy ride. With any luck, however, this particular piece will be a short, turbulent trip.

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46 comments on “Omicron Begins to Wreak Havoc on Airline Schedules

  1. “It’s really not a real holiday unless Delta melts down”. A bit exaggerated, but yes, Delta has and continues to experience operational meltdowns from time to time, just like the rest of the pack and in some ways, if not quite what AA and WN have delivered most recently. it is gratifying to see Delta getting some well deserved negative publicity. As to UA, it has hubs in some of the most complicated cities in the country (EWR, ORD, SFO) which, on a good day, offer up plenty of challenges. I’d still argue it is the carrier with the most experienced and talented CEO at the moment.

    In any case, good to see Delta getting dragged a bit here. Delta has long ago developed some key operational improvements to deliver a more reliable and consistent travel experience (and profits), but it remains a much overhyped, ballyhooed company that, while turning in better financials, has plenty of gaping holes in its network and finding itself increasingly challenged on many fronts. The Delta of 2021 isn’t the Delta of 2015.

        1. SEAN – I honestly don’t know. It must have something to do with the time of month (later in the month is tougher) and the bigger schedule.

  2. I wish data for the 26th was available – For Alaska and Delta the Seattle snow storm on Sunday really hampered operations. It was downright ugly Sunday at SeaTac. Oddly the Port is blaming Airlines for de-icing delays on the news, but FAA had various arrival holds throughout the day.

    1. I flew out of SEA yesterday morning around 9:30 on UA and the de-icing process took a good 40 minutes. Then when we pushed back the tug got stuck and it seemed to take a really long time. UA boarded us on time and we were ready to push back on time, so I’d say the blame is squarely on Seattle having inadequate capacity to deal with that much snow.

      1. SeaTac airport is run by the Port of Seattle which always seems to live up to its initials, PoS. I’m not a fan of that airport. It’s so poorly designed and operated.

  3. I’m sure COVID might play a tiny part in this, but it was going to be a meltdown for my airline well before last week.

    As of December 1st, there were more unassigned trips for the 23rd-26th than reserves to cover them. At this point it’s just snowballing as they’re desperately trying to dig themselves out of this problem, but they’re desperately trying to use Omicron as their scapegoat.

  4. I’d be curious to see the demographics on the seniority list, on who is calling in sick. People don’t want to work holidays, the new variant seems like a great excuse for a sick call.

  5. I don’t buy that miraculously as the biggest holiday of the year is approaching, omicron ‘starts’ to wreak havoc on particular carriers’ operations. Coincidence? I think not.

    American and Southwest heavily incentivized picking up trips. United and Delta did not, and also appeared to not schedule crews for many flying lines over the holiday (open time trips for those on reserve, in theory). Omicron is simply being used as the convenient scapegoat.

    Can the US taxpayers ask for our money back yet…?

  6. It would be nice to see the rule for quarantine match reality. Our studies so far show vaccinated persons only shed virus for 3-4 days upon onset of symptoms.
    That’s in part why healthcare got the relaxation of the quarantine rule.
    CF is very correct on stringent rules for symptoms and meds as it relates to pilot readiness regardless of the pathogen.

    This too, shall pass.

  7. Looks like other airlines are getting hit as well now, with Sun Country having a systems outage (though FlightAware doesn’t yet show the reported cancellations out of MSP) and Alaska already near 100 flights cancelled for Monday by early Monday morning (before much of the West Coast is even in daylight). Yikes.

    On the bright side, I did see passengers on at least 2 of my 3 flight segments over the holidays offer candy and treats to the FAs, which was very thoughtful. I’m already home, but if I were flying this week I’d be sure to pack/buy lots of “extra candy/sodas that I don’t need” to offer to the stressed-out gate agents, crews, and others who are managing to make it into work this week.

    As this is traditionally a slow news week, I guess it’s time for a few of the news networks to call up their favorite grandstanding politicians and let the politicians know that if the politicos make vague calls for more oversight and regulation of the airline industry, the network will probably be able to get their heads on TV. (/sarcasm/)

    On a lighter note, the reference to a “pi variant” appearing around Pi Day was hilarious, though I don’t know if I’d wager for the next variant (whether they call it “Pi” or not) to arrive before or after Pi Day. I can usually count on some good snark or humor in the 3rd or 4th line up from the bottom of the posts, and today’s post did not disappoint.

  8. What does Allegiant’s recovery plan look like when flights cancel and their customers are stranded? With limited flights per week that presumably don’t have a ton of open seats, do they buy them tickets on other airlines or just refund them the fare and wish them a happy holiday season and good luck?

    1. Oliver – They’ve had a crap operation through the summer, so Allegiant should at least be good at this now. But it’s not easy to get people where they want to go even on other airlines and even if they wanted to buy tickets.

    2. With Allegiant, I don’t think it puts many pax on other airlines (or at least it tries not to); I believe it mostly just refunds customers and wishes them good luck. That, the 2-3x/weekly frequency it flies many of its routes, and its historical strategy of running a schedule without a ton of spare planes/pilots are why I avoid Allegiant and encourage others to avoid them. To be fair, however, I know people who love Allegiant and are willing to take those risks in order to save money and/or avoid layovers.

      Anecdotally, I have friends who had their flight to Punta Gorda cancelled by Allegiant early this week. They got lucky and managed to get on an Allegiant flight to SRQ (Sarasota/Bradenton), but then had to rent a car (I believe at their own expense) to drive from SRQ down to Punta Gorda and pick up the car they had parked there. Made for a long and stressful day, but it worked out better for them than for many other Allegiant pax.

      1. Correction… My friends got a refund of the fare from Allegiant for the segment to Punta Gorda + $250/person (though they have only received the $250 for one of the two people in that group, and getting the other $250 may be more of a pain than it’s worth). They had to book the flight to SRQ on Southwest on their own and paid out of pocket for it at the last minute ($$$$$), then Ubered home and used their other car to head down to Punta Gorda and pick up the car they had parked there. Not fun, but still probably better than most people who were on that cancelled Allegiant flight.

        Also, I poked around on Allegiant’s web site and they explicitly refuse to book pax on other airlines when they cancel flights, so it really is, “Here’s your money back, good luck!” when Allegiant cancels; anything extra that they offer is a goodwill gesture.

  9. There are really only two issues that are worth discussing: 1. Scott Kirby gloated that United would not have the same operational issues that other airlines have had and 2. American and Southwest paid bonuses to their employees not to call in sick for the month of December after having cancelled thousands of flights this summer. Anyone that thinks that AA and WN employees were less sick than DL and UA employees is incredibly naïve. Do we want a reliable operation more than employees coming to work sick?
    Other points:
    1. United’s cancellations by fleet type looks like a staffing shortage while Delta’s looks like an across the board reduction of staffing due to something like a disease.
    2. Weather, esp. in SEA yesterday, was a major factor in the number of cancellations that grew by the hour. IROPS delete reserves very quickly.
    3. As of this morning, Alaska and JetBlue are both already over 5% for today after double digit percentage cancellations yesterdays. Combined weather and omicron makes this an industry event.
    4. While there is a focus on holiday performance, Delta has led all US airlines except for Hawaiian in on-time and completion performance and has throughout the pandemic with American (which cancelled thousands of flights over the summer) above United which simply says that United and Southwest (which also had mass summer cancellations) do a far worse job in running their operation day in and day out.
    5. The media is accurately painting this weekend’s events as an industry event. They are including pictures of AA and WN aircraft. The vast majority of passengers don’t read airline news to know who is really “worse” or scan departure boards to see who is cancelling more. There will be little benefit or penalty for any airline from this event.
    6. The standard for how badly operations run is passenger inconvenience. Not all holiday flights were full before this and there are anecdotal reports of high no-shows due to passenger reluctance to travel making it easier to reaccom passengers from cancelled flights.
    7. A4A joined Delta in asking the CDC to relax the 10 day quarantine requirement for breakthrough infections. Instead, the CDC changed the quarantine requirement for health care workers because they are “essential” – after decimating the number of those employee groups because of vaccine requirements – which will be litigated by the Supreme Court. Anyone that thinks there is a biological difference between airline/sports/retail/military workers and health care workers which results in different quarantine requirements believes in politics, not science.

    1. > Weather, esp. in SEA yesterday, was a major factor in the number of cancellations that grew by the hour.

      Yesterday was 12/26. Cranky’s data isn’t capturing that: “I took a look at cancellations on the 23rd through mid-day on the 25th in masFlight.”

      1. Yes….but the public and media’s perception of what has happened this extended weekend didn’t stop with Christmas Day afternoon.

        If anything, this exercise would be worth repeating for the entire December 20 through Jan 5 period if you want to look at holidays if covid related cancellations don’t extend beyond that timeframe

          1. And it’s not as if an analysis by fleet type would be meaningful for WN.

            But I was curious as they canceled me twice on 12/28 MDW-BUR. I’m pretty sure it was the worse-than-forecast WX at MDW.

            1. gregm – I think the weather was better than expected, but they pre-canceled a ton that day. It was a big mess. But now, Southwest is busy melting down, canceling 20% of flights today. Now it’s not as much weather and more COVID, I’m sure.

        1. Michael – Postivity? That’s exactly what I’m talking about! I don’t expect Southwest will run into trouble because it’s Southwest. I expect Southwest will run into trouble like every airline, because of those positive tests that are bound to cause labor shortages.

  10. Vaccines/mandates don’t seem to be limiting the labor disruption at the airlines. It will only get worse from here for at least the next several weeks esp post Christmas and New Years.

    Do we know with absolute certainty the vaccines are protecting staff against omicron? We don’t know that with certainty at this point, unless you do a control group comparison of unvaccinated airline employees – regardless, omicron is still in its early days. (In fact, we have an odd situation where globally, vaccinated people are getting the virus, then saying “thank goodness I got the vaccine”, rather than questioning why the vaccine didn’t work better or why they even have COVID). It seems like most people who are getting omicron are vaccinated individuals; this is happening globally and can be seen in infection figures in the most vaccinated countries relative to those that have lower rates of vaccination. Not sure what it will be like with future strains of the virus.

    There will be continuing and worsening implications of mandate policies on labor supply and passenger demand in the future, if COVID runs for longer. Airlines will increasingly have staff who will say forget it, I’m not getting jabs 4, 5 or 6 down the road, and these staff will then be considered “under-vaccinated” and they will lose their jobs at the airlines. So then your labor supply gets hit even worse, while at the same time the vaccinated labor pool becomes infected, like now with Omicron, driving a double labor shortage which will lead to even more common flight cancellations and financial losses.

    At the same time, as long as COVID policy responses continue in their current state – specifically, border restrictions, focus on vaccination status as opposed to more real-time (ie frequent testing) infection status, extended quarantines – the travel industry will never recover. So it behooves the airline industry to push for a less-panicked type of policy response globally.

    Also, the big risk overhanging now is that more countries will try to impose domestic vaccine mandates for air travel. This will be another disaster for the airline industry, as instantly a massive chunk of their demand will be cut.

    And then they and the world will never get out of it. There will constantly be new strains, constantly be labor or passengers who haven’t got that 7th jab and therefore risk being “restricted”, etc. It’s a never-ending spiral.

    In the end, my approach would be to do away with mandates, keep masking, ramp up testing and infrastructure and quality/speed of tests, massively promote healthy food and exercise lifestyles with supplementation, and ramp up availability of Pfizer and Merck COVID pills for treatment.

    Else at this rate and projecting what will happen with COVID both medically and politically, we will have even first tier airlines globally facing increased going-concern risk and large-scale financial losses/failures.

    1. Why does anyone refer to “vaccines not working” when they get covid after one, two or three jabs? I’m not picking on this particular commentary, but it annoys me to think that anyone would think that way.
      What’s the purpose of a vaccine? It is to protect people – not to make them immune, which conceivably would be well nigh impossible to do, especially within a short time-frame.
      Look at the track record of vaccines. Does the ‘flu jab prevent the ‘flu? Does the shingles vaccine prevent shingles? Neither prevents – but they do help to make a nasty bug less nasty.
      That’s what we have to remember – it simply helps us deal with a nasty bug more effectively.

      1. @ejwpj while you and @cranky may be correct, that’s not AT ALL what Fauci et al said 9+ months ago when vaccine distribution ramped up. You can find literally hundreds of clips from Fauci, the CDC, Biden, and more saying that if you get the vaccine, you won’t get COVID. They also said that if you get the vaccine, you can’t transmit COVID. And last not but least, they absolutely said that if you get the vaccine, you won’t die of COVID (remember, the clinical trials said it was 100% protective against death). Literally NONE of those things are true. UK data – perhaps the most comprehensive in the world – shows that 70% of COVID deaths are in vaccinated individuals, and early studies from Denmark show that Omicron is preferentially infecting the vaccinated. Thankfully, hospitalizations/deaths from Omicron are wildly disconnected from cases – in the good way – which makes perfect sense (viruses mutate to be more transmissible but less deadly). I wish @cranky would do some reading about ACTUAL vaccine (and mask) efficacy, instead of throwing cheap shots at “anti-vaxxers.” I’ve never before seen so many people have so much faith in a vaccine that requires a booster within nine months and doesn’t let you stop doing all the other mitigation measures.

        1. *I’m not anti-vax or pro-vax. Your body, your choice*

          Whats odd is I flew thru the entirety of the pandemic and didn’t get this thing until I had lunch with a doctor at a large hospital, figured he was the safest lunch buddy I could have. Nope, huge surge at the hospital that infected nearly 30% of them.

          I’m not putting my faith in the vax as much as I am my own self. I wash my hands regularly, hate touching physical surfaces if I don’t have to, wash my hands again, take Vitamin D, E, Zinc, fish oils, etc. Trying to eat healthier foods. I even think twice about getting drunk while flying or in the lounges now – I think my last lounge visit I drank nothing but ice water, ate a banana, and napped for 2 hours.

          As we WANT and try to travel more and more, I think we all need to get smarter in how we handle Covid & also travel. While realizing that our Commander-in-Chief, or whoever it is, and CDC, will always continue to move the goal post & 1984 everything else. I shook my head after Fauci denounced the IATA studies (and I think even CF posted one) about how you REALLY can’t get covid on an airplane (once the airpacks are on)… its getting ON the plane and OFF the plane that has the most dangers (since air isn’t being circulated). And oh, 5G! Lets not talk about the new 5G scare.

          CF is right, January is going to look interesting. Is it too late for a 2022 prediction? Airlines are gonna stop using 90 day schedules as their “lock-in” and continue to snowglobe schedules until about a week out. Nothing is sacred.

          1. Data shows the Omicron variant bypasses the vaccines easier than the prior variants, but that vaccination still greatly reduces the severity of COVID if you catch it. The overwhelming majority of hospitalizations and intubations are among the unvaccinated, while vacced/boosted people frequently think they just had a mild cold and avoid “long COVID”.

            Preventing infection as you are is great, but doing that plus vaccination would be even better – don’t think of the vaccine as as a first line of defence, but as a fallback position to prevent serious illness. It’s possible to do both – that’s my approach.

  11. The Pi joke was suave but I’m afraid obscure enough that people will not catch on and actually look for a Pi variant. Probably best to not make those kind of jokes. We have enough misinformation out there on Delta already

    …and that’s just the airline! (rimshot)

  12. in other covid news, a Delta flight to Shanghai turned around in-flight after China imposed cleaning requirements that extended the ground time on flights beyond what airlines that are roundtripping their crews from Seoul can accept. United’s flights have been delayed departing and the flights operated only because crew voluntarily extended to allow the cleaning to take place and crew and passengers to get out of China.
    Much of East Asia has taken an unrealistic approach to covid that will mean that borders will remain closed for a very long time even as China attempts to use covid as an excuse to further tilt the very limited market – by their own doing – in their favor since their airlines aren’t affected by lengthy cleaning requirements on flights departing from China.

  13. Possible factors I haven’t seen mentioned yet:
    At DL, there are a whole lot of new people for whom this might’ve been the first Christmas they worked. Many of them have zero qualms about calling in– especially after seeing UA employees get a “COVID bonus,” and other carriers offering incentive$ for working through the holidays.

    Conversely, there are potentially hundreds- if not 1000s- of employees who might’ve held Christmas off for the 1st time ever. No way they’re coming in to save the day.

    Just guesses/opinions, of course…

  14. The CDC has now reduced the quarantine requirement for positive, asymptomatic people w/ covid from 10 to 5 days.

  15. As someone who works in pilot scheduling, it is so disheartening. Walking into to each shift with the amount of open time that’s not going to get covered is getting really old. A lot of these sick calls are bogus, and we know because COVID sick calls are coded different on a pilot’s schedule. So, my conspiracy-ish thought process is- everyone called out for Xmas and New Years. They’ll go to their gatherings, actually get COVID for real, and then they’ll be out sick in January.
    I show up and do my job to the best of my ability every day. It saddens me that my so called professional colleagues who make my annual salary in a month can’t be bothered to do the same.

    1. Do you have any data to actually back that up? Have there been more sick calls over Christmas this year than last (2019 would be a better indicator probably)?

      I feel awful for crew schedulers in this situation. The company just sits there and hands you a giant s^*t sandwich every day and doesn’t give you the resources to do your job appropriately.

      Do you think they’re doing it intentionally? Or that it’s people who’d have normally just went to work sick in years past, deciding there’s a pandemic going on and that it might be better to call out than actually show up sick?

      1. Our department does have the data for this, yes, but obviously not sharable to the public. The amount of sick calls this year is the highest it’s ever been, even compared to 2019.
        I think it’s a combination of all the above. You have your group who isn’t sick who call out sick over the holidays when they can’t get rid of their trips, move their reserve off days around, or can’t commute to their bases (the pandemic is a great cover for this). You have your group who might be expiring some kind of mild symptoms and have been instructed to call out sick. And you have your group who actually call out because they are sick.
        But do I think it is some kind of organized action? No.

  16. Re: United’s cancellation by fleet chart, it would be interesting to compare it to current fleet in service and further confirm (or not) whether the cancellation was plane type-specific.

  17. I have a feeling with omicron, that every airline will have its week of hell. United was the unlucky one to go first followed quickly by Delta.

  18. It feels so sad that this proud country who put the first man on the moon is now seeing its people having to preface social media posts with the reminder that it’s necessary to couch posted language with a warning to deter “crazy anti-vax rants”. I came to this country many, many years ago because it was a shining beacon of scientific prowess and democratic rule. As the good, decent people I admired, folks who fought (actually fought!) world wars to make things right, and folks who were the pinnacle of scientific exploration, expire, I am left with this empty feeling that America, that shining beacon of hope, is a very sorry place to be now, with the advent of social media. If you put space exploration into the hands of a fraud like Elon Musk, and GOP governors in charge of pandemic protocols, what really is left of that once proud nation that put a man on the moon?

  19. For all of the crap that American takes on here, I think it needs to be said that they handled this very well. I’m on a flight right now, and talking to a flight attendant they said that the company offered time and a half for trips during the holidays, plus a bonus for perfect attendance, basically taking them to triple time for flying. There is no shortage of employees stepping up to take them up on it, and as a result, American is fine.

    It does help that the weather is good at their big hubs, but it’s more than that.

    They will have some issues after the holidays when the extra pay ends and they have to deal with it. I am betting that a lot of employees who might be positive aren’t testing or reporting so they can make the extra cash, but when that is done they will.

    I also think that what is going on is a POSITIVE for us. Omicron is tearing through the country in a great big hurry, but not getting people as sick. In combination with the vaccines and boosters, we are going to be running out of fresh bodies with no or insufficient antibodies, and the number of cases is going to crash. Fingers crossed anyway…

    1. My wife is an AA FA…..her last two trips had co-workers coughing, wheezing and feeling sick……but walking the aisle and spreading whatever because they want that 300% bonus…….just sayin’

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