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This is supposed to be a year of revival for airlines. It’s off to a rough start.

The industry ended an already messy holiday season with thousands more flight cancellations as companies struggled to deal with bad weather and keep planes and airports staffed because of a surge in coronavirus infections. More than 8,000 flights in the United States were canceled from Saturday through Monday, affecting more than one in 10 scheduled flights, according to FlightAware, a tracking service.

“We had a series of punches that really knocked the industry to the ground,” said Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research Group, a research firm that specializes in the travel industry.

The recent cancellations were caused by storms that produced heavy snowfall in the Midwest over the weekend and over the eastern United States on Monday, the worst day of the holiday season with more than 2,900 canceled flights. Southwest Airlines and SkyWest Airlines, which operates regional flights for several major carriers, were responsible for about a third of all cancellations over the weekend and Monday.


“Our planners continue their work to anticipate operational challenges today following the winter storm that moved across the country over the weekend, creating a band of heavy winter weather affecting the Baltimore/D.C. area Monday morning,” Southwest said in a statement. The airline has a big hub at Baltimore/Washington International Airport.

SkyWest said it was “working nonstop to minimize impact to customers and crew.”

Overall, airlines canceled more than 15,000 flights over the 10 days spanning Christmas and New Year’s Eve, or about 7 percent of all scheduled flights. Heavy snowfall and strong winds in the western United States drove cancellations around Christmas. The turmoil throughout the holiday season was exacerbated by shortages of crews as pilots, flight attendants and other workers called in sick with the coronavirus.

The disarray comes as airlines pin their hopes on a rebound next summer. The industry is rapidly hiring workers in anticipation of a return to prepandemic passenger traffic — and consistent profits. That recovery rests largely on the hope that the pandemic will be mostly under control and people will be more willing to travel for work and take more international trips.

“We still believe that we will get to a very strong summer in the trans-Atlantic” market, Delta’s president, Glen Hauenstein, told investors in mid-December, as the Omicron variant was beginning its rapid spread. Delta plans to offer about 85 percent as many flights across the Atlantic next summer as it did in 2019.


For many airlines, the work force expansion was already underway last fall. After they were forced to cancel hundreds of flights when they sought to fly too many flights with too few employees, American Airlines and Southwest cut their schedules and accelerated hiring. American recalled several thousand flight attendants from leave and hired 4,000 new employees in recent months.

“We took some very aggressive steps coming out of the summer, building the airline up,” David Seymour, American’s chief operating officer, said in an interview.

Southwest has also accelerated recruiting, though executives told investors last month that too many workers quitting and recruits demanding higher wages had slowed the efforts. “The hiring environment is the most difficult we have ever seen,” Gary Kelly, the airline’s chairman and chief executive, said at a December investor conference.

Critics say the industry deserves blame for its own troubles. Airlines received $54 billion in federal aid to keep workers employed during the pandemic on the condition that they avoid layoffs. But carriers thinned their ranks anyway by offering buyouts and early-retirement packages to thousands of workers.

Most airlines have yet to fully restore their work forces: As of October, the industry employed about 413,000 people, down almost 9 percent from the same month in 2019, according to federal data.


Airlines had reasons to reduce staff. Most have struggled to turn a profit consistently because the number of people flying has not fully recovered. The number of passengers who were screened at airports over the past two weeks was down about 15 percent compared with a similar period in 2019.

Omicron, of course, poses a threat to the industry, but some industry analysts believe its impact will be short-lived. “It’s put somewhere between, I think, a four- and a six-week standstill in what was the aviation recovery,” said John Grant, a senior analyst at OAG, a firm that provides global travel data.

Indeed, millions of people have boarded flights in the United States over the past two weeks, despite the variant’s spread, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

But Omicron has made it more difficult for airlines to operate. Even before the pandemic, storms could destabilize an airline’s holiday schedule. This season, the problem was compounded by high numbers of employees calling in sick.

“The nationwide spike in Omicron cases has had a direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operation,” said United Airlines, which canceled nearly 8 percent of its flights from the day before Christmas through Sunday. “We’re sorry for the disruption and are working hard to rebook as many people as possible and get them on their way.”


In a staff memo last week, JetBlue, which canceled 13 percent of its flights over a similar period, said it had received “record-breaking sick calls.”

Recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could help. Last week, the agency said it recommended that people infected with the coronavirus isolate for only five days instead of 10. Airlines immediately began adjusting policies to recall infected workers more quickly, decisions that met resistance from flight attendants and other employees.

“We believe this is the wrong move for aviation as it accepts that infectious people will be put back on the job or flying as passengers on our planes,” Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants at 17 airlines, said in a letter to airline executives last week.

With the holidays over and the industry entering what is usually a lean stretch, airlines should be able to move past the mess of the past few weeks and prepare for the summer.

“I think that barring the emergence of another variant that’s as destabilizing as Omicron has been, summer 2022 should be a very good summer for airlines and the rest of the travel industry,” Mr. Harteveldt said.


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