Nearly 8,000 flights have been canceled this holiday season. What’s going on?

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The forces that have grounded thousands of flights since Christmas Eve may ease into January, but it’s cold comfort for millions of travelers with plans for the New Year.

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And if 2021 has taught us anything, it is possible that 2022 will be equally unpredictable.

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Here’s a look at what has affected flights for thousands of people this holiday season, and what could happen over the next few weeks.

What happened?

Airlines were not spared from the proliferation of the Omicron variant, which ousted flight crews at airlines that had already reduced the size of their workforce following the collapse of air travel in 2020.

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The wave of Omicron infections came at the same time that crowds began to pack airports for holiday travel. Then came cold and heavy snow in the Pacific Northwest and other regions.

The convergence of the three airlines was forced to cancel thousands of flights starting on Christmas Eve. According to flight-tracking firm FlightAware, as of Thursday afternoon, about 7,800 flights to, from or within the US have been disrupted. More than 1,100 of them were on Thursday.

America was not alone. There have been thousands of cancellations overseas. European and Australian airlines report similar logistical issues with COVID-19 and flight crew. Chinese airlines made up a large percentage of cancellations.

To put this in perspective, most of the flights were fine. Aviation data provider Cerium said there are about 70,000 flights a day globally.

When can things improve?

US health officials this week half guide to a five-day quarantine for asymptomatic Americans who catch the coronavirus. Airline industry experts say it will ease staffing problems that have forced airlines to cancel flights – but flight attendant unions say they are wary of the change and its impact on worker health . Still, cases of Omicron, the rapidly spreading version of the COVID-19 virus, continue to rise. And that’s not the only problem.

Jim Hetzel, an expert on airline operations at Cerium, said it could take up to a week for airlines to fully recover from inclement weather.

Crossing the holiday rush will also help. After the New Year rush, January and February are the slowest travel months of the year, said Willis Orlando, senior flight specialist at Scott’s Cheap Flights. “There should be a lot more room for the airline to cut routes, reassign pilots and keep staff in reserve.”

Some airlines have also recognized that the confluence of holiday rush, Omicron and inclement weather makes it impossible to continue with the current schedule.

JetBlue JBLU,
-0.97%
On Wednesday it said it was reducing its schedule until mid-January in the hopes of giving customers more time to make alternate plans rather than last-minute cancellations – though there are still more cancellations to come.

“We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience caused by these schedule changes,” spokesman Derek Dombrowski said. He said crew members are volunteering to work extra hours and managers are pitching in where they have been trained to do so.

Alaska Airlines ALK,
-0.38%
It urged passengers who could reschedule for after January 2, as it was reducing Seattle departures and expected more cancellations and delays this week. delta lentils,
-0.31%
and United UAL,
-0.68%
Spokesmen said they could not predict when operations would return to normal.

Was this series of cancellations unusual?

Bad weather is a sporadic but persistent threat to travel in winter. 2021 rebound in travel, when airlines did not have enough staff to meet demand, causing huge Cancelled And delay earlier this year.

Southwest Airlines LUV,
+1.33%
Struggling in the summer and fall due to delays and cancellations, which she attributed to computer problems, staff shortages and bad weather. American AAL,
+0.11%
More than 1,000 flights were canceled over the Halloween weekend due to staff shortages. Delta canceled dozens of flights around Easter this year due to staffing problems.

Could the airlines have done anything to stop this?

Omicron was a blow to the system and its speed was widespread for almost everyone, including the airlines.

“This is an extreme situation,” said Hetzel, Sirium’s operations specialist.

Some airlines were hit harder than others because of where they operate. Raymond James analyst Savanti Sith said Southwest and American had a lower geographic exposure to areas of the US where the weather was terrible, and that its fewer employees are located in areas where COVID-19 cases are rising.

However, labor groups say more could have been done, such as offering flight attendants extra pay during the first holiday. Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents 50,000 employees across 17 airlines including United, Alaska, Frontier and Spirit Save,
+0.55%,
Said Delta started offering on Christmas Eve, but should have done it sooner. The union representing American flight attendants said it probably helped that the airline recalled employees who were on leave. In a November memo, American’s chief operating officer noted that approximately 1,800 flight attendants had returned from vacation in November, and 800 would return in December with 600 new employees.

Raymond James’s Sith analyzed which airlines he found were at higher risk of operational problems during the holiday season, which affected most of fourth-quarter profitability for the airlines. She found airlines conservative with scheduling were affected as well as aggressive.

“This leads me to believe that it has more to do with the exclusivity of the Omicron-version and that it currently has more influence in the Northeast than the failure on the part of the airlines to prepare,” Sith said.

Charles Leocha, president and founder of consumer advocacy group Travelers United, said airlines were more prepared for the holidays than they were for hailstorms and thunderstorms earlier this year.

“The episodes we were facing in the summer and autumn are a far cry from the episodes when we had airlines that were idle for two or three days,” Loecha said. “It’s been a really good effort. Airlines have given people more money to keep in reserve and they’re giving people more money to fly.”

Airlines are hiring. The U.S. Department of Transportation says that as of October, American passenger airlines employed more than 400,000 full-time employees, but that’s down about 9% from two years ago.

Even critics say airlines were at the mercy of the pandemic this year.

Paul Hudson, president of the advocacy group FlyersRights.org, said: “The airlines should have planned better and (the Department of Transportation) should have been monitoring the airline’s capacity and ready stockpile of equipment and personnel given the large federal subsidies from 2020. is required.” “But the Omicron type of high infection rate is primarily attributable to the disruption of the holiday season.”

What should passengers do if airlines cancel their flights?

If your flight is cancelled, most airlines will board you the next available plane to your destination free of charge. “They will figure out a way to get you there. You don’t have to pay anything extra,” said Liocha.

If you cancel your trip instead of taking an alternate flight, you are entitled to your money back, even if you have a non-refundable ticket. When they cancel flights, airlines push customers to vouchers for future flights instead of offering them a full refund. Scott’s Cheap Flights Orlando urges travelers to remember their right to get their money back. “Airlines have made it very easy to allow them to keep your money,” he said.

You can also ask the airline to transfer your ticket to another airline, but it is not obligated to do so. Similarly, airlines are not required to reimburse you for hotel rooms, cabs or other expenses.

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