By DAVID KOENIG, Editor of AP Airlines
For air travelers, the New Year picked up where the old left off – with great frustration.
As of late Saturday afternoon on the east coast, more than 2,600 US flights and nearly 4,600 worldwide had been canceled, according to the FlightAware tracking service.
This is the highest U.S. death toll to date since just before Christmas, when airlines began blaming staff shortages on rising COVID-19 infections among crews. More than 12,000 US flights have been canceled since December 24.
However, Saturday’s disruptions weren’t just due to the virus. Winter weather has made Chicago – where the forecast was for 9 inches (23 centimeters) of snow – the worst place in the country for travelers. Over 800 flights were cleaned at O’Hare Airport and over 250 at Midway Airport.
Southwest Airlines has suspended operations at both Chicago airports due to the forecast, according to a spokesperson for the airline. She said Southwest has known from years of operating at Midway that high winds and blowing snow make it difficult for planes to return to flight quickly.
Southwest has canceled more than 450 flights nationwide, or 13% of its program. American Airlines and Delta Air Lines have canceled more than 200 flights each, and United Airlines has canceled more than 150.
SkyWest, a regional carrier that operates flights under the names American Eagle, Delta Connection and United Express, has grounded 480 flights, a quarter of its schedule. A spokesperson blamed the weather in Chicago, Denver and Detroit and the COVID-19 illnesses.
Among international carriers, China Eastern has canceled more than 500 flights, or about a quarter of its total, and Air China has canceled more than 200 flights, a fifth of its schedule, according to FlightAware.
Sunday, when many travelers plan to return home from vacation, is also shaping up to be difficult. More than 1,900 flights, including more than 1,000 in the United States, had been canceled by Saturday evening. A winter storm with heavy snowfall is expected to head northeast as a new storm hits the Pacific Northwest, according to the National Weather Service.
Airlines say they are taking action to reduce cancellations. United are offering to pay pilots triple or more of their regular wages to take open flights for most of January. Spirit Airlines has reached a deal with the Association of Flight Attendants for double pay for cabin crew until Tuesday, a union spokeswoman said.
When winter weather hit the Pacific Northwest earlier this week, Alaska Airlines urged customers to delay all “non-essential” trips scheduled this weekend. With full flights over the New Years holiday, the airline said it was not sure it could book passengers stranded for at least three days.
Airlines are hoping that extra pay and reduced hours will get them through the holiday season and into the heart of January, when travel demand typically declines. The seasonal decline could be sharper than normal this year as most business travelers are still grounded.
Travelers who stuck to the roads rather than the heavens also faced challenges. Midwestern transportation officials have warned motorists that a mixture of rain and snow could make roads slippery and reduce visibility, resulting in dangerous driving conditions.
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