Cases of the highly-contagious COVID-19 Omicron variant continue to surge around the world, putting added strain on the aviation sector as it grapples with staffing shortages due to workers calling in sick.
In the U.S., United Airlines is the latest to announce a reduction to its flight schedule due to COVID-related staffing issues, a move that has caused thousands of cancellations.
In a company memo shared yesterday (Jan. 11), United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said the airline is "reducing our near-term schedules to make sure we have the staffing and resources to take care of customers."
According to CNN Business, the CEO did not indicate the extent of the flight suspensions, but noted how "the Omicron surge has put a strain on our operation, resulting in customer disruptions during a busy holiday season."
"I also know that Omicron has affected the personal well-being of our United team. We have about 3,000 employees who are currently positive for COVID," Kirby said in the memo.
On one day at Newark, nearly a third of JetBlue Airways team called out sick, he wrote.
The United States is currently experiencing a surge of COVID-19 infections brought on by the Omicron variant, setting new records for hospitalizations and total daily case counts.
On Monday (Jan. 10), the U.S. reported a single-day record of 1.5 million cases of COVID-19, putting strain on more hospitals, which are also dealing with staffing shortages.
JetBlue, too, recently reduced its schedule by some 1,280 flights, amounting to roughly 10 per cent of its schedule, through to Jan. 13, due to several crew members calling in sick.
Last week, Southwest Airlines also cancelled 562 flights or roughly 18 per cent of its schedule.
Flight cancellations continued to rattle the U.S. this past weekend, but at a slower rate than seen in recent weeks.
According to flight tracker FlightAware, around 870 flights to, form or within the U.S. were cancelled on Monday.
Up to that point, cancellations in the U.S. were hovering at a rate of roughly 1,000 flights per day.
The situation in Canada
Coupled with a weakened demand brought on by Omicron fears and re-imposed travel restrictions, the sting of flight cancellations is being felt in Canada as well.
On Dec. 30, WestJet announced plans to cut 15 per cent of its flights through to the end of January as it deals with staffing issues due to Omicron.
Sunwing is also reporting Omicron-related staffing shortages, as Melanie Anne Filipp, director of corporate communications and media relations at Sunwing Travel Group, told PAX on Jan. 4, stating that the company is focusing on consolidating flights.