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U.S. Airlines Kick Off 2022 With Operations in Disarray

Edward Russell

January 3rd, 2022

U.S. airlines cancelled almost 29,000 flights over the Christmas and New Year’s holiday travel season. These cancellations prompted much ink to be spilled about an industry in chaos, but the truth is that, while cancellations are elevated due to the surge in Omicron variant cases and weather, the vast majority of flights went off with nary a hitch and the industry focused squarely on 2022.

From December 20 to January 2 — the two weeks covering Christmas and New Year’s — U.S. airlines cancelled 28,646 flights, according to data from FlightRadar24. That works out to an average of 2,046 cancelled flights a day with most attributed to Omicron, although bad weather, including a snowstorm in the Pacific Northwest, contributed to the disruptions. Globally, just over 8 percent of all flights were cancelled during the period.

But the reality is that more than 91 percent of all flights to U.S. airports were completed over the period, data from Airlines for America (A4A) shows. That percentage only fell to 85 percent on January 1.

“The environment we’re navigating is among the most difficult we’ve faced,” Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian told staff in a memo on January 1.

And January is already looking better. Most carriers, and public health experts for that matter, forecast Omicron cases peaking in the first few weeks of the month. This will ease the number of staff out on Covid-19 related sick leave. In addition, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s shortening of the required quarantine window to five days from 10 after a positive test on December 27 is already helping airlines get staff back into the air faster.

MKM Partners airline analyst Conor Cunningham wrote on January 2 that U.S. airlines are likely to be operationally “challenged” until Omicron peaks, which he estimated could affect flights into February. However, he anticipated that 2022 will mark the end to the pandemic — and when airlines and the public learn to live with an endemic Covid-19 — and called the current operational disruptions “transitory” in nature.

Airlines have already begun culling their January schedules in preparation for continued disruptions. Before New Year’s, JetBlue Airways preemptively cancelled 1,300 flights through mid-January citing an elevated number of “sick calls.” And both Spirit Airlines and United Airlines are offering pilots extra pay to fly in January to help ensure a reliable schedule.

But airlines and analysts remain confident on the outlook for 2022. Cunningham forecasts “modest profits” at U.S. carriers this year. Bastian, in his memo to staff, called 2022 “one of the most pivotal years” in Delta’s history. And investors appear unfazed by the turmoil: stock prices for Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, and United — the six largest U.S. carriers — were all up on Monday, the first trading day of 2022.

“The months ahead will not be easy,” wrote Bastian. “But 2022 is also presenting us with enormous opportunities.”

Edward Russell

January 3rd, 2022

Photo credit: The Delta Air Lines ticket counter at Washington's Reagan National airport. Airline Weekly / Edward Russell

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