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Airlines cancel 2,700 flights in U.S. amid covid

Wintry weather in Midwest adds to misery for travelers by Compiled by Democrat-Gazette Staff From Wire Reports | January 2, 2022 at 4:53 a.m.
Plexiglass partitions separate travelers as they make their way through the security line Friday at Love Field in Dallas. Major airlines continued to cancel flights Saturday because of staff shortages and bad weather. (AP/LM Otero)

For air travelers, the new year picked up where the old one left off -- with a lot of frustration.

In two short weeks, as the year closed out, the omicron variant drove coronavirus case counts to record levels, causing staffing shortages that disrupted air travel and left gaping holes in police departments, firehouses and hospitals.

By late Saturday afternoon on the East Coast, more than 2,700 U.S. flights and about 4,600 flights worldwide had been canceled, according to tracking service FlightAware.

That is the highest single-day U.S. toll yet since just before Christmas, when airlines began blaming staffing shortages on increasing covid-19 infections among crews, and on bad weather. More than 12,000 U.S. flights have been canceled since Dec. 24.

Some of the biggest trouble spots for travelers were in the Midwest, where 55% of flights scheduled to leave from Chicago Midway and 45% from Chicago O'Hare were scratched, according to FlightAware. Airports in Denver, Kansas City and Detroit also saw a high number of cancellations and delays.

Wintry weather made Chicago the worst place in the country for travelers, with 800 flights scrubbed at the O'Hare airport and more than 250 at Midway International. Forecasts called for 9 inches of snow there. Denver, Detroit and Newark, N.J., were hit with at least 100 cancellations each.

Southwest Airlines suspended operations at both Chicago airports because of the forecast, according to an airline spokeswoman. She said high winds and blowing snow make it hard to get planes back in the air quickly.

Southwest canceled more than 450 flights nationwide, or 13% of its schedule. American Airlines and Delta Air Lines scrubbed more than 200 flights each, and United Airlines canceled more than 150.

SkyWest, a regional carrier that operates flights under the names American Eagle, Delta Connection and United Express, grounded 480 flights, one-fourth of its schedule.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage »]

Among international carriers, China Eastern scrubbed more than 500 flights, or about one-fourth of its total, and Air China canceled more than 200 flights, one-fifth of its schedule, according to FlightAware.

Today, when many travelers plan to return home from holiday trips, is shaping up to be difficult, too. Some 1,050 flights into or out of the U.S. scheduled for today were already canceled Saturday, and 202 were scrubbed for Monday, FlightAware said.

A winter storm with heavy snow is expected to march toward the Northeast as a new storm hits the Pacific Northwest, according to the National Weather Service.

Airlines say they are taking steps to reduce cancellations. United is offering to pay pilots triple or more of their usual wages for picking up open flights through most of January. Spirit Airlines reached a deal with the Association of Flight Attendants for double pay for cabin crews through Tuesday, said a union spokeswoman.

When winter weather hit the Pacific Northwest earlier this week, Alaska Airlines urged customers to delay any "non-essential" trips that were planned through this weekend. With full flights over the New Year's holiday, the airline said it wasn't sure it could rebook stranded passengers for at least three days.

Airlines hope that the extra pay and reduced schedules get them through the holiday crush and into the heart of January, when travel demand usually drops off. The seasonal decline could be sharper than normal this year because most business travelers are still not flying because of the pandemic.

Travelers who took to the roads instead of the skies faced challenges, too. Transportation officials in the Midwest warned motorists that a mix of rain and snow could make roads slippery and reduce visibility, leading to hazardous driving conditions this weekend.


The rapid spread of the omicron variant has left companies across industries ranging from meatpacking to retail with thinning workforces, especially after months of record-high staff resignations.

Most of the nation's largest school districts have decided to forge ahead and remain open this week, at least for the time being, citing the toll that remote learning has taken on students' mental health and academic success.

The rising number of omicron cases has not yet been followed by a proportionate increase in hospitalizations and deaths, though hospitalizations have increased in recent days -- a sign that the variant causes fewer cases of severe illness, health official say.

But the highly contagious variant is still racing across the country, and teachers, parents and workplaces are bracing for the impact.

In schools, many teachers, students and parents saw promise in the fall semester. By mid-December, Brayden Boren, a high school English teacher in San Antonio, had begun to feel as if an end to the long, exhausting battle against the pandemic was within sight.

Then omicron arrived in Texas. By the week of Dec. 11, it accounted for about 25% of all new infections, according to state data. A week later, it spiked to 85%. In the past two weeks, the number of new cases being reported each day in Texas has increased by 240%.

Boren, 27, who has not had the virus, saw it all around him. "Even in my small, little friends group, they were popping up, one by one by one," he said. "No one was really getting it until now."

Now Boren is questioning whether a return to in-person learning makes sense. "It's a hard time to be a teacher. How far can we push ourselves?"

Health officials have warned that unvaccinated people remain most at risk of severe illness or death from omicron. More than 70% of people ages 12 and older in the United States are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About 25% of children ages 5-11 have received at least one dose of a vaccine. Children younger than 5 are still not eligible for the vaccines.

Two months after vaccinations were approved for 5- to 11-year-olds, about 14% are fully vaccinated, CDC data shows. The rate is higher for 12- to 17-year-olds, at about 53%.

For business leaders, the constant change in public health conditions and guidelines has meant acclimating to a new level of flexibility.

"They don't give you a playbook at Harvard Business School on the pandemic," said Yancey Spruill, CEO of the tech company DigitalOcean, which told its staff that it will allow remote work indefinitely.

Across the country, workers were steeling themselves for months of disruptions to come.

"I've been working through most of the pandemic, and I hadn't tested positive before omicron," said Amelia Smoak, 29, who works at a restaurant and bar in Manhattan's East Village neighborhood.

She is fully vaccinated but recently recovered from a mild case of covid. She added that business has gotten far slower as case counts rise: "Tips have been stable, but head count went down drastically."

Scientists are projecting that the country's sharp increase in cases will crest by the middle of January.

The omicron-fueled surge that is sending covid-19 cases rocketing in the U.S. is putting children in the hospital in record numbers, and experts lament that most of the youngsters are not vaccinated.

During the week of Dec. 22-28, an average of 378 children ages 17 and under were admitted per day to hospitals with the coronavirus, a 66% increase from the week before, the CDC reported Thursday.

The previous high over the course of the pandemic was in early September, when child hospitalizations averaged 342 per day, the CDC said.

On a more hopeful note, children continue to represent a small percentage overall of those being hospitalized with covid-19. An average of nearly 10,200 people of all ages were admitted per day during the same week in December. And many doctors say the youngsters seem less sick than those during the delta surge over the summer.

Covid-19 deaths have been rare among children over the course of the pandemic. As of last week, 721 in the U.S. had died of the disease, according to data reported to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The overall U.S. death toll is more than 800,000.

For some parents, the prospect of returning to work was the least of their worries.

Kelli Gay's holiday season was halted abruptly with two phone calls in mid-December.

Her husband and oldest son had been exposed to covid-19 at separate holiday parties in Florida. Soon the entire household -- two parents and three children -- tested positive for the virus, stunning them back to the reality of the pandemic's enduring presence. All of them had been at least partly vaccinated.

"We were still wearing our masks, but we were reengaging with people and attended events," said Gay, 45, a grants director at the Port of Miami who lost two relatives to covid-19 in 2020. "Then we got the phone calls."

The test results precipitated a quiet Christmas, now Gay faces a bigger crisis: What to do with her three school-age children when school resumes Monday.

The school district where Gay lives in Miramar, Fla., where cases have shot up dramatically, is not offering virtual alternative for schooling. And the state passed a law authorizing parents, rather than school districts, to decide whether their children wear masks to school.

That means her children can possibly be in classes with maskless students during this latest wave.

"High anxiety would be how I would describe what I am feeling," she said. "So now our hopes are riding on enforcing the home rules, on the kids staying masked at school, keeping their distance and a little bottle of hand sanitizer in their backpacks."


The number of cases in New York continues to rise steeply, yet city school officials have vowed to keep schools open, embracing increased testing as an alternative to closing classrooms.

City officials, businesses and residents are working to strike a delicate balance -- preventing a full-blown public health crisis while trying to keep the city open and running. This month, Democratic New York Gov. Kathy Hochul instituted a statewide requirement that masks be worn in all indoor public places unless businesses or venues implement a vaccine requirement.

Now, former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had flatly ruled out a lockdown as was imposed in the early days of the pandemic. He announced last month that schools would reopen as planned Monday. But parts of New York are shutting down fully or partially on their own.

As the city logged record-high numbers of infections last week, officials struggled to provide basic services to New York's 8.8 million residents.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority started suspending subway service Wednesday because there weren't enough healthy transit workers to operate the entire system. As of Thursday night, service on three subway lines had stopped.

Meanwhile, the New York City Fire Department has pleaded with residents to call 911 only if they are experiencing a "real emergency."

With a third of the agency's paramedics out sick, department officials said the system was being overwhelmed by calls from people with mild covid-19 symptoms who wanted ambulance rides to hospitals to be tested for coronavirus infection.

The New York Police Department canceled days off for any officer healthy enough to work through the New Year's holiday after hundreds of officers tested positive for the virus.

The federal government has dispatched 60 Federal Emergency Management Agency medical workers and 30 auxiliary ambulances to New York, and has set up nine new testing sites, said Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator. Three more testing sites were to open today, he said.

"We've been working around-the-clock to surge reinforcements to communities as they battle omicron," Zients said at a news briefing Wednesday, "helping to staff hospitals, administer monoclonal antibody treatments, transport patients, add testing capacity and get more PPE [personal protective equipment] to where it is needed."

Even without an official lockdown, many New York City businesses are struggling to keep their doors open.

According to a survey from the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, 77% of small businesses in the borough have seen less business this holiday season than they did last year. Almost 60% of businesses have experienced employees calling in sick in recent days, and 20% were forced to close during the holidays, according to the survey.

Throughout the city, many bars and restaurants noted a dramatic drop in business.

"We're really, really in a challenging position right now for a lot of these small businesses that were just barely hanging on," Randy Peers, the president and chief executive of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, told CBS New York.

Among the businesses that have been hit particularly hard by employee shortages is CityMD, a health-care company that runs 150 urgent care centers in New York and New Jersey.

As of Thursday night, the company had closed dozens of clinics because of the number of its employees who had come down with the virus. Many of CityMD's locations were packed in the days before Christmas as New Yorkers scrambled to get tested before spending the holiday with friends and relatives.

The block-long lines for tests have largely disappeared in recent days, but at some testing sites last week, there were still lines out the door.

Still, the Times Square New Year's Eve ball drop was held, with limited spectator capacity, and Eric Adams, a Democrat, took the oath of office as New York mayor in Times Square shortly after the ball drop.

Information for this article was contributed by David Koenig, Martha Bellisle and Terry Tang of The Associated Press; by Susan Decker of Bloomberg News (TNS), Audra D.S. Burch, Stephanie Saul, Edgar Sandoval and Mitch Smith of The New York Times; and by Emmanuel Felton of The Washington Post.

Print Headline: Airlines cancel 2,700 flights in U.S. amid covid


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