For air travelers, the new year began, when the old escaped – with lots of frustration.
By Saturday afternoon on the East Coast, more than 2,600 U.S. flights and nearly 4,600 worldwide had been canceled, according to tracking service FlightAware.
It is the highest single-day U.S. toll since just before Christmas, when airlines began blaming staff shortages on rising COVID-19 infections among crews. More than 12,000 U.S. planes have been canceled since Dec. 24.
However, Saturday’s disruption was not just due to the virus. Winter weather made Chicago – where forecasts required 9 inches (23 centimeters) of snow – the worst place in the country for travelers. More than 800 flights were scrubbed at O’Hare Airport and more than 250 at Midway Airport.
Southwest Airlines suspended operations at both Chicago airports because of the forecast, according to a spokeswoman for the airline. She said Southwest knows from years of operation on the Midway that high winds and blowing winds make it difficult to get planes back into 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 airline that operates flights under the names American Eagle, Delta Connection and United Express, put 480 flights on the ground, a quarter of its schedule. A spokesman blamed the weather in Chicago, Denver and Detroit and COVID-19 diseases.
Among international airlines, China Eastern scrubbed more than 500 flights, or about a quarter of its total number, and Air China canceled more than 200 flights, a fifth of its schedule, according to FlightAware.
In Southern California, LAX reported 208 flight cancellations, John Wayne Airport had nine, Long Beach Airport had six and Hollywood Burbank Airport had five.
Sunday, when many travelers plan to return home from vacation travel, also looks set to be difficult. More than 1,900 flights, including more than 1,000 in the United States, had been canceled late on Saturday. A winter storm with heavy snow is expected to march 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 offer to pay pilots three times or more of their usual pay to pick up open flights through most of January. Spirit Airlines reached an agreement with the association of flight attendants on double pay for cabin crew through Tuesday, a union spokeswoman said.
When winter weather hit the Pacific Northwest earlier this week, Alaska Airlines urged customers to postpone all “non-essential” flights scheduled for this weekend. With full flight over the New Year holidays, the airline said it was not safe it could rebook stranded passengers for at least three days.
Airlines are hoping that extra pay and reduced schedules will get them through the holiday infatuation and into the heart of January, when travel demand usually falls. The seasonal decline may be sharper than usual this year because most business travelers are still grounded.
Travelers who stuck to the roads instead of the sky also faced challenges. Transport authorities in the Midwest warned motorists that a mix of rain and snow could make roads slippery and reduce visibility, leading to dangerous driving conditions.
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