Omicron-Induced Staff Shortages and Snow Hobble U.S. Air Travel | Top News

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By Gabriella Borter and Aishwarya Nair

(Reuters) – U.S. airlines canceled nearly 1,000 flights on Monday after grounding thousands of flights over the Christmas holiday weekend, hobbled by staff shortages from COVID-19 infections and bad weather in parts of the country.

Monday’s air travel woes capped a glum holiday weekend for thousands of passengers who were stranded in airports and waiting in hours-long customer service lines to re-book flights, often for days after originally planned.

Rapidly rising COVID-19 infections from the Omicron variant have forced airlines to cancel flights as pilots and cabin crew fall sick and need to quarantine.

The average number of new COVID-19 cases in the United States has risen 55% to over 205,000 per day over the last seven days, according to a Reuters tally.

A representative for Alaska Airlines, which canceled more than 120 flights on Monday due partially to snowy conditions in Seattle, told a passenger on Twitter that it would be hours before someone from the airline’s customer service could speak by phone, signaling the extent to which airline phone lines were overwhelmed with frustrated passengers.

“The hold time is about 7 hours. I am so sorry,” Alaska Airlines wrote on Twitter in response to a customer complaint.

Harley Garner, a 27-year-old creative strategist from Portland, and his brother from Seattle were staying with their parents in Pahrump, Nevada, over the holidays and had planned to fly home on Sunday evening. Both brothers’ respective flights -to Portland via Alaska Airlines and to Seattle via Allegiant Airlines – were canceled on Sunday afternoon. Both managed to book seats on later flights – Garner’s brother got one late Sunday night, and Garner booked one for 6 a.m. on Monday.

Garner said the most frustrating part of the travel nightmare, which Alaska Airlines said was weather-related, although Portland was not experiencing severe weather on Monday, was the last-minute notification of flight cancellations.

“If you know a plane isn’t going to leave one place and that’s a connector flight, then just cancel that flight,” he said. “Don’t play these games like you don’t know that there’s a staff shortage because of the coronavirus.”

A total 969 flights into, within or out of the United States were canceled by midday on Monday, according to the flight tracking website flightaware.com.

In statements emailed to Reuters on Monday, Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines said their cancellations were due to weather. In a statement over the weekend, Delta Airlines attributed cancellations to weather and the Omicron variant. JetBlue said crew shortages were behind its dozens of flight cancellations on Monday.

“We continue to work to mitigate the staffing issues we’re seeing,” a JetBlue spokesperson said.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter, Aishwarya Nair and Jonathan Allen; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Copyright 2021 Thomson Reuters.

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