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Dozens of flights canceled at LAX due to weather and COVID-related staffing shortages

Travelers at LAX push luggage past a sign reading "Get a free COVID-19 rapid test."
Travelers arrive at the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX, where the county has set up a free rapid coronavirus testing site.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
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Passengers crowded Los Angeles International Airport and other airfields across the nation on Sunday as weather issues and staffing shortages due to the COVID-19 pandemic added to a wave of cancellations over the holiday weekend.

Airline industry customers endured considerable travel agony throughout the day because many of the 200,000 passengers expected to fly in or out of LAX had their plans disrupted when at least 119 flights were canceled, according to an airport spokesman.

The tracking site FlightAware.com listed more than 1,328 cancellations within, into, or out of the U.S., and more than 3,039 total cancellations around the world.

There were 96 cancellations at LAX on Christmas Day, according to FlightAware, compared with nearly 1,000 cancellations nationwide.

Compounding problems for the throngs of holiday travelers: Keeping social distance to avoid infection was difficult even with a new, statewide indoor mask mandate.

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“We’re doing everything we can; from signage and audio announcements to social media messages and deep cleaning,” said Heath Montgomery, spokesman for LAX, “but we rely most on individual passengers to be good fellow travelers.”

The boom in travel is coinciding with a surge in COVID-related hospitalizations in the state over the last three weeks and the rise of new Omicron cases. Overall COVID-19 hospitalizations are up 16% statewide and up 39% in Los Angeles County in that time, and the Omicron variant has been confirmed in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Bernardino and Ventura counties.

Delta, JetBlue and United officials on Sunday said staffing shortages apparently contributing to an increase in flight cancellations because of new Omicron cases were unexpected, and it was not clear when air travel operations would return to normal.

On Sunday, United had a total of 98 cancellations nationwide related to COVID staffing concerns out of more than 4,000 scheduled flights, said Maddie King, a spokeswoman for United. About 50% of the customers whose travel was interrupted, she said, were arriving at their final destination either early or within four hours of their original scheduled flight.

“The nationwide spike in Omicron cases this week has had a direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operation,” she said. “As a result, we’ve unfortunately had to cancel some flights and are notifying impacted customers in advance of them coming to the airport. We’re sorry for the disruption and are working hard to rebook as many people as possible and get them on their way for the holidays.”

No surprise there, according to Montgomery. “We share a connected national airspace,” he said, “so, if something happens here or on the East Coast, we all feel its impact.”

The airport expected travel to peak Dec. 17, 19 and 26, and Jan. 2, with more than 200,000 travelers each day. But mounting frustrations and problems were reflected in LAX’s recent tweets.

“At LAX today, our flights are showing over 90% on time right now with 25 cancellations out of 1,028 scheduled flights,” LAX tweeted at 9:23 a.m. Friday.

An updated tweet five hours later said, “We have seen some additional cancellations this evening so please check your flight status with your airline for the latest. Arrive early, we will be busy tonight! Check parking at http://parking.flylax.com and @FlyLAXstats.”

On Sunday morning, the airport advised, “Today is expected to be another peak travel day at #LAX with up to 200,000 passengers using the airport! Make sure to arrive early for your flight, pre-book parking at http://parking.flylax.com, and please wear your mask - wishing everyone #HealthyHolidays #LAXTravelSafely.”

An estimated 3.5 million visitors were expected to descend on LAX between Thursday and Jan. 3, marking a return to near 2019 levels, when 4.5 million travelers used the airport during the same period in the last pre-pandemic holiday season.

“Last year, 1.85 million passengers went through LAX during this time, making this year almost twice as busy,” airport officials said in a release this month.


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