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Carriers Prune Winter Schedules After Holiday Cancellations

The flight cancellations that beleaguered the airline industry during the recent Christmas and New Year holidays have eased but not abated entirely. 

On Jan. 10, 903 U.S.-related flights—within, into or out of the U.S.—were canceled, according to flight tracker FlightAware. On Jan. 11, 738 were canceled. As of about 5 p.m., 529 were on Jan. 12. Cancellations for Thursday and Friday already were at 276 and 121, respectively, and climbing. 

Globally, 3,419 flights were canceled Tuesday and 2,781 Wednesday, as of early evening. 

Several airlines continue to blame bad weather and staffing shortages triggered in part by Covid-19 for the cancellations—even with new guidance issued in late December by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that reduced the recommended isolation time for asymptomatic individuals infected with Covid-19 from 10 days to five. 

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United Airlines has been particularly hard-hit. It led as the U.S. carrier with the most canceled flights for Jan. 11, and was poised to repeat Jan. 12 as of early evening on Wednesday. About 3,000 employees currently are positive for Covid-19, according to a letter sent to employees by United CEO Scott Kirby on Jan. 10. 

“In one day alone at Newark, nearly one-third of our workforce called out sick,” Kirby wrote. 

Schedule Reductions

To counter the need to cut flights, United has scaled back upcoming schedules. “We’re reducing our near-term schedules to make sure we have the staffing and resources to take care of customers,” Kirby continued. 

Indeed, as of Jan. 7, United had 95,331 flights scheduled for the month of January, down 42 percent from United’s Oct. 1, 2021, anticipated flight schedule for January according to data from global aviation analytics firm Cirium. 

United isn’t the only carrier making schedule cuts. The number of January flights for the four largest U.S. carriers, along with JetBlue and Alaska Airlines, is down a full one-third compared with Oct. 1 planned January schedules. American Airlines so far has reduced its schedule by 38 percent compared with October’s plans; Delta Air Lines by 28 percent. Current schedule cuts for the same six airlines for the rest of the winter during the same comparative timeframe thus far are less severe, at 18 percent in February and 16 percent for March.

Alaska Airlines on Jan. 6 announced it would cut departures through the end of January by 10 percent. That doesn’t take into account cuts previously made. “We need to build more reliability back into our operation as we deal with the impacts of omicron,” according to an Alaska statement. 

In addition to reducing schedules, New York-based JetBlue this spring will cut 17 routes, as first reported by The Points Guy. Those services were underperforming or will be moved to a seasonal schedule, according to the airline. About 65 percent of the affected routes were for destinations in Latin America and the Caribbean, with the rest affecting U.S. city pairs, including flights from Bozeman, Fort Myers and Tampa.

International Effect

The need to reduce schedules is hitting international airlines, too. German carrier Lufthansa planned to cut 33,000 flights, or about 10 percent of its flight plan, from its winter schedule due to the spread of the omicron variant, according to late December reports. British Airways is cutting service to three U.S. cities—Baltimore, Nashville and New Orleans—at least until summer.

Further, China in recent weeks has ordered the cancellation of more than two dozen scheduled flights from the U.S. as a result of passengers testing positive for Covid-19 after arriving in the country, according to Reuters. 

In late December, Delta turned a flight around midair from Seattle headed to Shanghai because of a change in cleaning rules at the Chinese airport. According to Simple Flying, schedule changes uploaded last weekend showed Delta has pulled its nonstop service to China until the end of October, including that twice-weekly flight between Seattle and Shanghai, as well as twice-weekly service between Detroit and Shanghai. Both flights now will include a stop in Seoul. 

On a Jan. 12 appearance on CNBC’s Squawk on the Street, Cowen senior research analyst Helane Becker said that airlines were coming out of 2021 “fairly strong” except for the flight cancellations at the end of December due to a combination of weather and staffing shortages, which have continued.

“January will be a tough month,” she said. “The first six weeks of the year will be tough, and we don’t have business travel coming back. We don’t see it coming back at all to pre-pandemic levels.”

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