Air travel is up this year, thanks to vaccinations and booster shots. Travelers feel more confident in returning to traveling. Airports are reporting increased numbers of travelers despite the pandemic and the Omicron variant. That’s the good news for the travel industry. The bad news is that the rapid spread of the Omicron variant is causing worker shortages and flight cancellations on Christmas Eve.
Earlier this week, Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian sent a letter to CDC chief Rochelle Wallensky asking for a reduction in the 10-day quarantine time. He suggests a five-day quarantine for vaccinated workers. He justifies the request by saying that airline workers are essential workers. The length of quarantine time is causing a worker shortage for airlines. That means lots of travelers are stranded at airports due to canceled flights. Over 90% of Delta employees are fully vaccinated. That’s exactly what is happening today, on Christmas Eve.
According to Flight Aware, 170 flights have been canceled by United Airlines for Friday. That is about 9% of its planned schedule. About 90 flights are canceled for Saturday. For example, a flight from Denver to Newark scheduled for Friday is canceled “due to an increase in Covid cases limiting crew availability”, according to a message on the United Airlines website. A spokesperson confirmed that a nationwide spike in Omicron variant cases is disrupting flights.
“The nationwide spike in Omicron cases this week has had a direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operation. As a result, we’ve unfortunately had to cancel some flights and are notifying impacted customers in advance of them coming to the airport. We’re sorry for the disruption and are working hard to rebook as many people as possible and get them on their way for the holidays,” the spokesperson said.
The same is happening with Delta Air Lines. Delta canceled 131 flights for Friday.
“We apologize to our customers for the delay in their holiday travel plans. Delta people are working hard to get them to where they need to be as quickly and as safely as possible on the next available flight,” the spokesperson said. “Flight cancellations are due to a combination of issues, including but not limited to, potential inclement weather in some areas and the impact of the Omicron variant.”
A trade organization representing many U.S. airlines, including Delta, United, and American Airlines, also wrote to Dr. Walensky in support of the 5-day quarantine recommendation. However, yesterday the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA sent their own letter to the CDC in support of keeping the 10-day quarantine requirement in place.
The number of cancellations so far isn’t as bad as it was during the summer months when airlines like American and Southwest faced worker shortages and weather delays. Both of those airlines offered their staff compensation for working peak holiday trips and fulfilling attendance goals. It seems to be paying off as Southwest only has one cancellation for Friday and American has eight cancellations. All of the airlines are preparing for the busiest days since the pandemic began.
Perhaps the CDC is leaning toward being less strident on long quarantine times for vaccinated workers, especially essential workers. On Thursday the CDC announced a cut in quarantine time for health care workers to 7 days with a negative test.
The “isolation time can be cut further if there are staffing shortages” – and in the case of a designated crisis workers may face no restrictions at all, the guidance adds.
The new recommendations apply only to health care workers, and isolation and quarantine guidance for others remain unchanged.
“As the healthcare community prepares for an anticipated surge in patients due to Omicron, CDC is updating our recommendations to reflect what we know about infection and exposure in the context of vaccination and booster doses,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a statement.
The workers must have gotten a negative test within two days before their return and not had a fever in 24 hours.
Also, the new guidance from CDC for health care workers states that “fully vaccinated and boosted health care workers do not need to isolate themselves at home following “high-risk” exposure to the virus if they have not tested positive.”
The CDC will probably prioritize essential workers first and then the general population of vaccinated workers as it updates its recommendations.
International flights are being canceled, too. Lufthansa announced the cancellation of a dozen transatlantic flights during the holiday period of travel. The airline didn’t speculate on whether or not the shortage of pilots was due to Covid infections or quarantines. It said they tried to prepare in advance with “a large buffer” of extra staff for holiday travel.
Germany-based Lufthansa said Friday that it was canceling a dozen long-haul transatlantic flights over the Christmas holiday period because of a “massive rise” in sick leave among pilots. The cancellations on flights to Houston, Boston and Washington come despite a “large buffer” of additional staff for the period.
Lufthansa said in a statement that “we planned a very large buffer for the vacation period. But this was not sufficient due to the high rate of people calling in sick.”
We likely won’t ever get back to a pre-pandemic normal. The coronavirus is here to stay, like other viruses. We just have to find a way to live with it and prepare accordingly. That includes restrictions keeping current with developing situations. The Omicron variant can produce COVID symptoms but so far they are much less rough than the Delta variant for vaccinated people. Breakthrough cases are sweeping the country much faster than Delta did but with fewer hospitalizations because of vaccinations and booster shots. The hospitalized are, for the most part, unvaccinated people. Allowing airline personnel the same leeway as health care workers seems reasonable in order to keep the country moving.