Omicron grounds hundreds more U.S. flights over Christmas weekend

Passengers line up at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York
Passengers line up Sunday at John F. Kennedy International Airport during the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant in Queens, New York City.
REUTERS/Jeenah Moon

By Humeyra Pamuk and Kanishka Singh

WASHINGTON – U.S. airlines called off hundreds of flights for a third day in a row on Sunday as crews were grounded amid surging COVID-19 infections due to the highly transmissible Omicron variant, forcing tens of thousands of Christmas travelers to change their plans.

Commercial airlines canceled more than 720 flights within, into or out of the United States on Sunday, according to a tally on flight-tracking website

This was slightly down from nearly 1,000 on Christmas Day but around the same level as Christmas Eve, and further cancellations were likely. In addition, more than 1,400 flights were delayed.

The Christmas holidays, typically a peak time for travel, coincided with a rapid spread of the Omicron variant. Infections have risen sharply in many parts of the country, with New York state’s health department warning on Friday it had recorded a “startling” four-fold increase in COVID-19 hospital admissions for children under 18 since the week beginning Dec. 5.

With the surge in infections, airlines have been forced to cancel flights with pilots and cabin crew needing to quarantine.

Delta Air Lines Inc. expected more than 300 of its flights to be canceled on Sunday.

“Winter weather in portions of the U.S. and the Omicron variant continued to impact Delta’s holiday weekend flight schedule,” a Delta spokesperson said in an emailed statement, adding that it was working to “reroute and substitute aircraft and crews to get customers where they need to be as quickly and safely as possible.”

When that was not possible, it was coordinating with impacted customers on the next available flight, the spokesperson said.

United Airlines called off 98 flights on Sunday, a spokesperson said, adding that it remained a small portion of the average 4,000 daily flights.

“Importantly, 25% of customers whose travel was interrupted were able to rebook on flights that allowed them to get to their final destination earlier than they otherwise would have,” United spokesperson Maddie King said in an email.

A White House official, who asked not to be named, said despite the mess at some airports that “we’re in a better place than last Christmas” and noted that “only a small percentage of flights are affected.”

“But any cancellations can be a pain and delay reunions with family and friends, so the Transportation Department and the FAA are monitoring this closely,” the official said, referring to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Globally, FlightAware data showed that 2,252 flights were called off and more than 7,100 were delayed, as of 11.30 a.m. on Sunday.

Omicron was first detected in November and now accounts for nearly three-quarters of U.S. cases and as many as 90% in some areas, such as the Eastern Seaboard. The average number of new U.S. coronavirus cases has risen 45% to 179,000 per day over the past week, according to a Reuters tally.

While recent research suggests Omicron produces milder illness and a lower rate of hospitalizations than previous iterations, health officials have maintained a cautious outlook and say much remains to be learned about the variant.

New York’s acting state health commissioner, Dr. Mary Bassett, said the “striking increase ” in hospitalizations of children with COVID that the state has recorded in the last three weeks showed urgent action was needed.

All children older than five should be fully vaccinated, she said, while those under five should be shielded by ensuring those around them have protection through vaccination, boosters, mask-wearing, avoiding crowds and testing.

“The risks of COVID-19 for children are real,” Bassett said in a statement. The state’s health department said the increases were concentrated in New York City and surrounding areas where Omicron is spreading rapidly.

It said that in the most recent week, no 5- to 11-year-old admitted to the hospital due to COVID was fully vaccinated. It did not give details on the overall number of hospitalizations, or the severity of the cases.

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