By Humeyra Pamuk and Joel Schectman
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. airlines canceled close to 900 flights on Saturday, the second straight day of massive cancellations as surging COVID-19 infections have sidelined some pilots and other crew members, upending plans for tens of thousands of holiday travelers over the Christmas weekend.
More than 880 Christmas Day flights, including domestic flights and those into or out of the country, were canceled, up from 690 on Christmas Eve, according to a running tally on flight-tracking website FlightAware.com. Around 800 flights were delayed.
The Christmas holidays are typically a peak time for air travel, but the rapid spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant has led to a sharp increase in COVID-19 infections, forcing airlines to cancel flights as pilots and crew need to be quarantined.
United Airlines canceled 230 flights, a company spokesperson said.
“The nationwide spike in Omicron cases this week has had a direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operation,” spokesperson Maddie King said. She added that the cancellations made up a small portion of United’s 4,000 average daily flights during the holiday season.
“We are working hard to rebook as many people as possible and get them on their way for the holidays,” she said.
FlightAware data showed that Delta Air Lines scrubbed 292 flights as of 11:23 a.m. EST (1623 GMT), while a spokesperson for American Airlines said the carrier had to call off 90 mainland flights. Globally, a total of more than 2,500 flights were called off on Saturday and some 4,200 others were delayed.
“Our operation has been running smoothly, and unfortunately a number of COVID-related sick calls led us to make the difficult decision to pre-cancel some flights scheduled for today,” a spokesperson for American Airlines said.
Not all airlines were affected equally. A spokesperson for Southwest Airlines said there were no issues to report with the carrier’s flights on Saturday.
The Omicron variant was first detected in November and now accounts for nearly three-quarters of U.S. cases and as many as 90% in some areas, such as the Eastern Seaboard.
The average number of new U.S. coronavirus cases has risen 45% to 179,000 per day over the past week, according to a Reuters tally.
While recent research suggests Omicron produces milder illness and a lower rate of hospitalizations than previous variants of COVID-19, health officials have maintained a cautious note about the outlook.
Ahead of the Christmas holiday, Americans scrambled for COVID-19 tests and many went ahead with their travel plans.
U.S. officials have said that people who are fully vaccinated should feel comfortable proceeding with holiday travel.
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Joel Schectman; Editing by Kieran Murray and Leslie Adler)