Weather, not Omicron, has been bigger disruptor of Canadian holiday travel, airlines say
U.S. airlines have reported cancelling many flights in past week because of staff shortages tied to variant
Canadian air travellers are experiencing an uptick in flight cancellations this holiday season, but airlines say weather is a bigger factor than COVID-19.
According to airline data company Cirium, Canada's largest airlines cancelled hundreds of flights between Dec. 22 and Dec. 26 of this year. Flair Airlines cancelled nine per cent of its scheduled flights during the period while WestJet Airlines Ltd. cancelled seven per cent of its flights. Air Canada cancelled four per cent of its scheduled flights during the period.
The proportion of cancelled flights was significantly higher than earlier in December, when the cancellation rate for major carriers hovered around one to two per cent, and also higher than the same period during 2019's pre-pandemic holiday season.
Omicron linked to U.S. cancellations
South of the border, U.S. airlines have reported cancelling significant numbers of flights in the past week because of staff shortages tied to the Omicron variant. Both Delta Air Lines and United Airlines said the nationwide spike in cases this week has impacted flight crews and left carriers short-staffed.
According to FlightAware, which tracks flight cancellations, airlines have cancelled more than 4,000 flights to, from or inside the U.S. since Friday, with over 1,000 U.S. cancellations on Monday.
On Monday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said it was shortening the recommended isolation time for Americans with COVID-19 to five days from its previous guidance of 10 days, so long as they are asymptomatic. The move could help airlines and other businesses mitigate staff shortages from the disease.
But in Canada, airlines say weather has caused more holiday travel disruptions than COVID-19 so far this season.
"The last few days were some of our busiest since pre-pandemic, carrying nearly 50,000 guests a day on more than 500 flights at peak," said WestJet spokesperson Morgan Bell in an email.
"We are not seeing similar issues to our U.S. counterparts and the large majority of our posted cancellations are weather related."
Frigid temperatures and arctic air have left most of the western provinces shivering this week with wind chills dipping down as low as -55 C.
Environment Canada says all of Alberta and most of British Columbia and Saskatchewan, along with parts of Manitoba and Ontario, are under extreme cold weather warnings.
Winter weather impact
Air Canada, which cancelled 171 flights from Dec. 22 to Dec. 26, said adverse winter weather was the major factor.
"We have the crews to operate our schedule so we have not been impacted as some other carriers have been by COVID-19," a statement from the airline said.
Porter Airlines spokesperson Brad Cicero said flights have operated "generally well" over the last week. He said the limited cancellations that have occurred for the Toronto-based airline are due largely to weather and aircraft maintenance, though a small number have been related to "staffing."
Flair Airlines acknowledged it has seen an uptick in sick calls from staff and crews, but said that is typical for this time of year.
"Currently, the biggest challenge for us, and likely most airlines, is that the ups and downs of the pandemic have caused staffing issues on the ground and at the airport due to long lines and increased passengers," said Matthew Kunz, Flair's vice-president of business transformation and operations.
Air Transat spokesperson Pierre Tessier said the company has not cancelled any flights in the last few days due to staffing issues related to the rising Omicron variant and "does not expect any cancellations at this time."
Vaccine mandate for Canadian airlines
Several Canadian airlines reported they've seen travellers cancel holiday plans because of rising case numbers, though they said they also continue to see demand for new bookings.
The federal government requires both Canadian airline employees, as well as passengers departing from Canadian airports, to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
On Monday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S.'s top infectious disease expert, also recommended the U.S. government consider a vaccine mandate for domestic air travel.
"That is just another one of the requirements that I think is reasonable to consider," Fauci told MSNBC in an interview.
U.S. President Joe Biden, speaking to reporters on Monday, declined to say whether he endorsed a vaccine mandate for domestic air travel.
With files from The Associated Press and Reuters