(NEW YORK) – The travel chaos continues for the eighth straight day on Friday, with nearly 1,300 U.S. cancellations as of 11 a.m. ET. Airlines are grappling with the double blow of bad winter weather and a surge in crew COVID cases, which have left them under staff shortages and forced airlines to cancel nearly 10,000 flights since Christmas Eve.
Now the Federal Aviation Administration is warning of its own personnel problems, such as sick air traffic controllers. Additionally, the FAA warned Thursday that weather, vacation traffic and COVID-19 “are likely to add some travel delays in the coming days”.
“Like the rest of the US population, an increased number of FAA employees tested positive for COVID-19,” the FAA said in a statement. “To ensure safety, the volume of traffic in some facilities could be reduced, which can lead to delays in peak times.”
The travel turmoil could not have come at a worse time, as millions of Americans travel during what is possibly the busiest travel season since the pandemic began. The Transportation Security Administration estimates that between now and January 3, approximately 8.5 million passengers will pass through US airports.
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport was hit particularly hard this week – it held the first spot for the most cancellations in the world for three days in a row. Denver International took its place on Friday morning, topping the list with more than 250 cancellations.
Airlines try to proactively cancel flights to give travelers time to rebook.
JetBlue Airways, which has been on sick leave in some departments 200-300% more than average, has canceled more than 1,200 flights in the next few weeks.
“While the new CDC guidelines should help get crew members back to work sooner, and our cut schedule and other efforts will further facilitate daytime cancellations, we expect the number of COVID cases in the Northeast – where the most of our crew members have their seat – rise will continue to rise for the next week or two, “the airline said in a statement. “This means that the likelihood of further cancellations is high until the number of cases drops.”
Delta Air Lines is already planning to cancel 200 to 300 daily flights for the coming weekend, citing “increasing winter weather and the Omicron variant”.
Thousands of travelers who had to call airlines to change their flights faced long waits.
Alaska Airlines reported holding times of up to 20 hours on Thursday.
Delta and JetBlue indicate holding times of one hour and 35 minutes and two hours and 16 minutes, respectively.
On Monday, airlines received the first signs of possible relief when the CDC cut isolation time for asymptomatic and fully vaccinated people who contract COVID-19 from 10 to five days.
JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes told CNBC Thursday that the new guidelines will definitely help, but that “the size of the problem is really just the number of people who suffer it”.
“Things are likely to get worse before they get better,” he said.
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