Flight cancellations, delays pile up as omicron surge hits airline crews

ByMarnie Hunter, CNN, CNNWire
Friday, January 7, 2022
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The year is off to a rough start for air travelers. Widespread cancellations, tied in part to the spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus among airline crews, have piled up over Christmas and into 2022.

The year is off to a rough start for air travelers.

Widespread cancellations, tied in part to the spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus among airline crews, have piled up over Christmas and into 2022.

And the highly transmissible variant has once again intensified personal risk calculations around routine activities -- including air travel.

One silver lining for those who are flying in the first few months of 2022: Airfares are down.

Here's where things stand for air travelers as 2022 gets underway:

Omicron is complicating everything

The Omicron variant of the coronavirus is up to three times more infectious than the Delta variant, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday.

So is the risk of air travel higher with Omicron?

"Hard to say because it depends on whether you're talking about infection or hospitalization," said Linsey Marr, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech who studies how viruses travel in the air.

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"Certainly, the risk of getting infected is higher because Omicron is so easily transmissible and partially escapes the vaccine, but the risk of hospitalization may not be significantly different if you are vaccinated and boosted," Marr said via email.

Flight cancellations pile up

Flight cancellations and delays are another travel worry right now.

On Monday, cancellations reached a holiday-season high, with more than 3,200 flights canceled to, from or within the United States, according to flight tracking site FlightAware.com.

Bad weather over the New Year's weekend compounded disruptions that became widespread on Christmas Eve. From December 24 through January 4, more than 20,300 flights were canceled to, from or within the United States, FlightAware data shows. During the same period, nearly 83,000 flights were delayed.

"I expect January is going to be a tough month for not just air travel but the entire country," said Brett Snyder, president of Cranky Concierge travel assistance and a former airline employee. "Even if the cases are mostly mild, especially for the vaccinated, that still requires people to stay away from work for a period of time, and that will disrupt flights if enough crewmembers get sick at any given time."

Kathleen Bangs, a former airline pilot and spokesperson for FlightAware, pointed out that flight crews bumped up against Federal Aviation Administration limits on their flight hours at the end of December, making it difficult to find crewmembers "who had enough hours left to take extra flights, work overtime, etc."

January means a reset on those monthly limits. "Now the slate is clear again for the coming weeks," Bangs said. January is also not typically a busy month for US air travel, she noted.

Bangs suggests flying nonstop whenever possible. When faced with a long delay or cancellation, get on the airline's website or app instead of standing in line at the gate or on the phone, she advises.

Snyder encourages travelers to book longer connections to give themselves a buffer in the event of delays, but he said there's "no silver bullet" because illness and weather are unpredictable.

"Otherwise, it's important to keep perspective here," Snyder said. "Even with all these cancellations, 9 out of 10 flights operated, so the vast majority of people will be fine."

On the worst days of this holiday season for cancellations -- January 1 through January 3 -- FlightAware shows that about 10% to 13% of flights were canceled.

The good news, if you're traveling soon

In better news for travelers flying soon, US domestic airfare is generally relatively cheap compared with the same time in past years, according to analysis from travel app Hopper.

Domestic US airfare is averaging $239/round-trip in January 2022, down 17% from January 2019 and 12% from January 2020, according Hopper economist Adit Damodaran.

"We expect the Omicron variant to dampen travel demand and lead to lower airfare on domestic trips for the first two months of 2022," Damodaran said, before demand starts to pick up again in mid-February.

Around April, Hopper expects to see 2019 prices in the domestic market again.

There's good news on airfares for international travelers, too.

"We'd definitely consider international airfare right now to be very cheap compared to the past years, approaching historical lows of $600/round-trip that we last observed during the Delta variant wave in the late summer of 2021," Damodaran said.

January 2022's $659/round-trip price is down 12% from January 2019 and 8% from January 2020.

Damodaran expects fares domestically and internationally to increase by single-digit percentages each month heading into summer.

While prices may rise, there's hope that cases will fall and make traveling safer and smoother in 2022.

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