Experts: Mass flight cancellations could ‘ebb and flow’ in 2022 as COVID cases rise

Dec 27, 2021, 7:57 PM | Updated: 9:05 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — As holiday travel dies down, many are wondering if mass flight cancellations the airline industry experienced over Christmas will continue into January. The situation, described by airlines and travel experts as a mix of bad weather and an increase in airline staff contracting COVID-19, created a perfect storm during a busy travel week.

While storms and holidays will move on, the contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus will not, and it begs the question if COVID-19 sick callouts will keep creating those cancellations.

The situation Christmas weekend created headaches and frustration as cancellations and delays pushed plans back anywhere from less than an hour to a full day and overnight.

Hundreds more flights canceled because of staff shortages

Jennifer Walker and her family spent more than 24 hours trying to make it back home to California from Sun Valley, Idaho.

She said her 3 p.m. Delta flight from Sun Valley to Salt Lake City Sunday afternoon was delayed by a few hours. Once on the plane, they sat on the tarmac for two hours, until they were told they needed to de-plane because of mechanical issues.

At midnight, she said they found out they’d need to book a hotel on their own dime and couldn’t fly out until the next morning.

“The flight that we got on today, it said we were technically called a ‘delayed flight’ of 18 hours and 30 minutes,” Walker said.

That morning flight was then delayed an additional two hours because of weather.

She awaited her flight to California in the Salt Lake International Airport Monday afternoon, that she said was also already delayed.

Tre Risk finally made it back to Utah from Hawaii Monday afternoon, after playing musical airlines with Alaska and Delta, and even switching airports.

“The flight from Kauai to Seattle got cancelled, so I switched to a flight directly from LAX to Salt Lake, and then that one got delayed,” Risk recounted. “So, then I had to switch the flight from LAX as well because Hawaii got delayed.”

Experts indicate that if COVID-19 cases continue to spike in certain areas, it could domino into similar delays at the airport in the months to come.

“I think what we’re going to see happen is sort of just a reflection of what’s happening in the general population,” David Slotnick, The Points Guy senior airline business reporter, said. “If it spikes in one place, pilots/flight attendants aren’t really immune from that.”

He recommended that passengers be ready and check on their flight status often ahead of travel, beginning about a week before takeoff.

“If you’re checking your reservation in the days leading up to your flight, maybe if there’s a problem, you can spot that early and sort of deal with it before you’re at the airport with all your bags and your family and all the inconvenient things,” he said.

Slotnick, who has been following the airline industry delays closely, said he thinks the next few months will bring an ebb and flow — that’s a reflection of the way the rest of the pandemic is going.

Airline officials explained that they’re trying to mitigate the impacts of those sick callouts.

“SkyWest teams are working to recover after weather impacting several hubs, as well as increased COVID cases and quarantines amongst crew members, have resulted in higher than normal flight cancels through the weekend and today,” read a statement to KSL from SkyWest on Monday. “We apologize for the inconvenience and are working to resume normal operations as quickly as possible.”

SkyWest accounted for most of the flight cancellations into and out of Salt Lake International on Monday.

American Airlines, which blamed COVID-related sick calls for its delays, said it precanceled flights.

“We proactively notified affected customers yesterday and are working hard to rebook them quickly,” a representative wrote to KSL.

United Airlines also shared with KSL that it contacted passengers early if their flight was cancelled to give them time to rebook.

Unfortunately for Walker, her family’s overnight delay happened on-the-spot.

“Now, we’re just waiting for, I don’t know, to hear if it’s really going to take off when it says,” she said of her second flight to California. “So, hopefully we’ll get home. We’ll get home tonight.”

For anyone who finds their flight canceled and they’re unsure what to do, Slotnick recommended passengers ask to be flown on a different airline, during a different time, or on a different route.

He made the point that only about 15 to 20 percent of flights saw cancellations or delays, so most of those flying won’t experience an issue.

Still, he suggested travelers keep checking their reservation and make a habit of looking at it every day.

“Hopefully that’s enough to just keep you abreast of anything that’s going on,” he said, “and give you the chance to stay on top of it and get everything under control quickly.”

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Experts: Mass flight cancellations could ‘ebb and flow’ in 2022 as COVID cases rise