Flight Cancellations at O’Hare Continue as COVID-19 Causes Staffing Shortages for Some Airlines

Dec. 28, 2021

Holiday weekend flight cancellations continued into Monday at Chicago’s airports, as weather and COVID-19 staffing shortages combined to cancel dozens of flights.

Ninety-seven flights had been canceled at O’Hare International Airport by about 6 p.m. Monday, with another 42 scrubbed for Tuesday, and the numbers were rising, according to the website FlightAware.

The cancellations, which have numbered in the thousands nationwide since Friday, come as demand for holiday travel converges with the emergence of the omicron variant of the coronavirus. United Airlines had canceled 10 flights at O’Hare on Monday and American Airlines had canceled 12. SkyWest, which operates flights for United, American, Delta and others, reported 45 cancellations, according to FlightAware.

SkyWest said in a statement it was “working to recover” from weather that affected several of its hubs, and more crew members contracting COVID-19 or needing to quarantine. American and United both said some of their cancellations were also due to employees calling in sick with COVID-19.

United Airlines said it had canceled 115 total flights across its entire system Monday, out of more than 4,000 scheduled.

Pilots were picking up additional flying hours where possible, but flying time is capped by federal regulations, said James Belton, an airline pilot and a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association, the union representing United pilots.

“Like the rest of the country, pilots are experiencing increased exposure to COVID and our sick calls are above normal,” he said.

Midway Airport also reported 33 flight cancellations Monday. All but one of those were on Southwest Airlines, which said in a statement fog on Monday had left the airline unable to operate for 2 ½ hours. Southwest’s operations have not been recently affected by COVID-19, a spokeswoman said.

At O’Hare on Monday afternoon, lines had formed at United and American’s customer service counters. While many travelers were there with questions and challenges unrelated to rebooking canceled flights, some were trying to rebook weather cancellations.

At the United counter, Jennifer Roberts feared she was facing an unlucky combination of COVID-19 and weather challenges as she tried to get to India to visit family. Her flight from Atlanta on Monday morning was diverted for weather, finally reaching O’Hare more than six hours late and causing her to miss her international flight, she said.

The United staff had been helpful and she was hopeful she would get rebooked, she said. But in the middle of the holiday travel rush, with airline employees out sick with COVID-19, she wasn’t sure whether they would be successful, especially since the flight she had missed was on an affiliate of United’s, not the airline itself.

“I think everything is kind of crazy, so they can only do so much,” she said.

Rebooking passengers onto new flights will be the challenge, said Dennis Tajer, a pilot for American Airlines and spokesman for Allied Pilots Association, the union representing the company’s pilots.

Tajer said that as of Monday afternoon, six American Airlines flights leaving Chicago had been canceled out of 135 scheduled, plus there were another 10 cancellations by American’s regional operators. He said the six departing American Airlines cancellations affected just under 1,000 passengers.

Meanwhile, nearly 97% of all seats on flights leaving Chicago on Monday operated by American were occupied, he said. That meant there wasn’t a lot of room to rebook passengers whose flights had been canceled, though the regional operators had slightly more open seats.

“When one cancels, there’s not a lot of space at the dinner table,” he said.

The Christmas weekend cancellations are not the worst set of cancellations American Airlines has had this year, Tajer said. The key, he said, will be how quickly the airline recovers from the cancellations.

A spokesman for the union representing American Airlines flight attendants said that while flight attendants have been affected by rising COVID-19 cases, staffing levels were adequate.

But the president of a union representing other flight attendants at 17 airlines said that while some of the cancellations were weather related, positive COVID-19 tests among flight attendants were ticking up as the omicron variant spread, and were affecting staffing.

“Staffing remains tight as workers are hesitant to pick up voluntary overtime due to disruptive passengers, COVID concerns and COVID test positives during the busiest travel period of the year,” Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said in a statement. “We have negotiated holiday incentives to help with operational challenges but there’s only so far you can stretch people.”

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