Thousands of flights canceled, delayed at the start of the work week

A winter storm moving into the mid-Atlantic combined with the pandemic to continue to frustrate air travelers whose return trips home from vacation were canceled or delayed for the first few days of the new year.

More than 1,900 U.S. flights and more than 3,300 worldwide were grounded from early Monday, according to tracking service FlightAware.

It follows Sunday’s cancellations of more than 2,600 U.S. flights and more than 4,400 worldwide. And on Saturday, more than 2,700 U.S. flights and more than 4,700 worldwide were canceled.

ONE winter storm expected to bring as much as 10 inches (25 centimeters) of snow to the District of Columbia, northern Virginia and central Maryland by Monday afternoon.

The cancellations, combined with more than 5,000 flight delays on Monday, only heighten the despair that holidaymakers have felt over the weekend trying to get home.

“It was absolute chaos,” said Natasha Enos, who spent a sleepless Saturday night and Sunday morning at Denver International Airport during what was to be a short stay on a cross-country trip from Washington to San Francisco.

Saturday’s single-day U.S. toll of flights was the highest since just before Christmas, when airlines began blaming staff shortages on rising COVID-19 infections among crews.

A winter storm that hit the Midwest on Saturday made Chicago the worst place in the country for travelers all weekend. About a quarter of all flights at O’Hare Airport were canceled on Sunday.

Denver Airport was also facing significant disruption. Enos, which flew with Frontier Airlines, did not learn that her connecting flight home to California had been canceled until she had already landed in Denver. Then it was a hassle to find alternative flights and navigate through luggage applications packed with stranded and confused travelers, amid concerns about the proliferation of the highly transferable omicron variant of COVID-19.

“It was a lot of people in a very small space, and not everyone was masked,” the 28-year-old financial analyst said. “There were a lot of exhausted kids, and some families were so stressed.”

In Michigan, the authority that operates Detroit International Airport said crews worked around the clock to remove snow and maintain the airport. Atlanta Airport Authority advised travelers to arrive earlier than usual due to high passenger volume, potential weather problems and pandemic-driven staff shortages that could prolong the time it takes to get through security gates.

And thousands of miles from the nearest snowstorms, Hawaiian Airlines said it had to cancel more flights between islands and across the Pacific due to staff shortages.

Southwest Airlines said it was working to help customers affected by about 400 canceled flights around the country on Sunday, about 11% of its schedule. The Dallas-based airline expects even more operational challenges as the storm system pushes in on the east coast.

Delta Air Lines said Sunday it is issuing a travel exemption for scheduled flights this week from mid-Atlantic airports in Baltimore and Washington in preparation for the expected winter weather.

American Airlines said most of Sunday’s canceled flights had been canceled ahead of time to avoid last-minute disruptions at the airport.

SkyWest, a regional airline that operates flights under the names American Eagle, Delta Connection and United Express, put more than 500 flights on the ground Sunday, about 20% of its schedule, according to FlightAware.

Airlines have said they are taking steps to reduce cancellations caused by workers affected by the pandemic. United offer to pay pilots three times or more of their usual salary to pick up open planes 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 spokesman said.

The airlines hope 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.

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