US flight cancellations hit a record level as COVID thins crews amid severe weather

The cancellations mounted amid reports of heavy
snowfall across much of the nation’s midsection, and if the pattern of the past
week holds, many more could be cancelled by day’s end.

The industry cancelled thousands of trips, about 5.7%
of all scheduled flights, in the week ended Friday, according to FlightAware,
an aviation data provider. Every major US carrier made deep cuts Saturday, too.
Nearly half the cancellations were concentrated at Chicago’s two airports,
where heavy snow and strong winds were expected throughout the day into Sunday.

Southwest Airlines said it planned to suspend
operations at those airports Saturday afternoon. The airline cut over 470
flights nationwide, more than any other US carrier, accounting for about 13% of
its schedule.

“As always, we have safety top-of-mind and, for us,
that also means keeping people from driving to airports to wait on long-delayed
flights whenever we can avoid that,” Southwest said in a statement.

Delta Air Lines scrubbed 9% of scheduled trips, while
American and United Airlines each cut 7%. In a statement, United, which has its
headquarters in Chicago, said that the nationwide spike in coronavirus cases
had affected its ability to staff flights, too.

The cancellations contribute to a disappointing time
for the industry, both to the end of the holiday season and to a convulsive
year characterized by revival and setbacks. Widespread vaccinations early in
2021 gave way to a summer travel boom that was then stifled somewhat by the
delta virus variant. The industry recovery continued to build again in the
fall, only to be slowed again by the omicron variant.

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Millions of people have been flying daily within the
United States this holiday season. But passenger traffic is still down 15% or
more from 2019 on most days, according to Transportation Security
Administration data. Despite the recent turmoil, US carriers cancelled 1.5% of
scheduled flights in 2021 compared with 1.6% in 2019, according to FlightAware.

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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