LAX cancellations persist amid bad weather, Omicron surge

Holiday travel woes continued Monday at Los Angeles International Airport, after a wave of flight cancellations over the holiday weekend.

Dozens of new flights were scrapped as winter weather and staffing shortages amid a surge in coronavirus infections plagued the industry.

The cancellations hit during “one of the busier days” of the already bustling holiday travel season, with 188,000 passengers expected at the airport Monday, according to Heath Montgomery, a spokesman for LAX.

Tracking site listed 94 cancellations at LAX on Monday — about 7% of the estimated 1,300 flights scheduled for the day. Travelers coming to or from the airport saw even more interference with their plans Sunday, when 119 flights were canceled.

More than 1,070 flights were canceled within, into or out of the U.S. on Monday, and upward of 2,710 were stopped around the world for the day, according to FlightAware. That’s a slight improvement over the previous day, when there were 1,517 cancellations nationally and 3,274 globally.

The disruptions arrive as the highly transmissible Omicron variant surges across California, contributing to a spike in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, and coincides with more people flying to see family and friends, potentially for the first time since the pandemic began nearly two years ago. Travel has doubled and tripled at some U.S. airports compared with 2020 levels, based on recent passenger screenings by the Transportation Security Administration.

Over the last week, California has averaged 11,914 new coronavirus cases, an increase of 72.9% compared with two weeks ago, according to The Times coronavirus tracker. There are 3,781 people hospitalized because of a confirmed case statewide, a 9.8% increase from two weeks ago.

Some airlines have attributed hampered operations to a rash of Omicron infections among airline employees, limiting staffing — which was already driven down by pandemic-era cuts — during the holiday travel boom.

United Airlines canceled 115 of 4,000 flights scheduled for Monday, and Delta Air Lines expects to cancel upward of 200 of 4,166 flights, according to representatives for the airlines.

“The nationwide spike in Omicron cases has had a direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operation,” United said in a statement. “As a result, we’ve unfortunately had to cancel some flights and are notifying impacted customers in advance of them coming to the airport.”

United spokesperson Maddie King said the airline contacted passengers early throughout the weekend if their flights were canceled to give them time to rebook or make other travel arrangements. She said about 50% of all passengers arrived at their destination early or within four hours of their originally scheduled flight.

Delta said cancellations on its end were due in part to coronavirus effects as well as winter weather in some parts of the country. Inclement weather proved particularly disruptive at Delta’s hubs in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Seattle and Salt Lake City, the airline said on its website.

Delta canceled 374 of 4,155 scheduled mainline and connection flights Sunday, pointing to the same factors.

“Canceling a flight is always Delta’s last resort” John Laughter, the company’s executive vice president and chief of operations, said in a statement. “The result is not only difficult for customers, but for our people who want nothing more than to take care of them — especially over the holidays.”

JetBlue reported 66 cancellations among 1,006 flights planned for Monday, “with the possibility of a few additional depending on crew availability,” airline spokesperson Derek Dombrowski said.

The outbreak among airline industry staffers of coronavirus infections linked to the Omicron variant is striking not only during the busiest travel period of the year but also as airlines try to fill positions left vacant from mass furloughs initiated shortly after the pandemic began in 2020.

Airlines have been rehiring workers steadily over the last few months but are still short of pre-pandemic levels. In October, they employed 9% fewer full-time staffers than in the same month in 2019, according to the most recent data by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Meanwhile, travel levels are skyrocketing, in L.A. and across the country.

In eight of the last 11 days, TSA screeners have seen more than 2 million travelers in U.S. airports. Those figures are below pre-pandemic levels but are double — and sometimes triple — the levels from the same period in 2020.

An estimated 3.5 million visitors were expected to descend on LAX between Thursday and Jan. 3, nearing 2019’s levels, when 4.5 million travelers used the airport during the same period, according to airport officials.

Last year, 1.85 million passengers traveled through LAX during the holiday season, making this year almost twice as busy, officials said.

Times staff writer Louis Sahagún contributed to this report.

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