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Flight cancellations continue at LAX as more bad weather rolls in, Omicron surge worsens

A young traveler takes a rest on top of the family's luggage
A young traveler rests on the family’s luggage at LAX on Dec. 27, where dozens of flights in or out of LAX were canceled.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Holiday travel woes continued Monday at Los Angeles International Airport, after a wave of flight cancellations over the holiday weekend.

Dozens of new flights were scrapped as winter weather and staffing shortages amid a surge in coronavirus infections plagued the industry.

The cancellations hit during “one of the busier days” of the already bustling holiday travel season, with 188,000 passengers expected at the airport Monday, according to Heath Montgomery, a spokesman for LAX. Passenger numbers are expected to progressively decrease over the next few days, he said, before rebounding to roughly 204,000 on Jan. 2. — one of the airport’s peak travel days for the month.

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Tracking site FlightAware.com listed 61 cancellations at LAX as of Monday night — about 6% of the estimated 1,010 flights scheduled for the day. Travelers coming to or from the airport saw even more interference with their plans Sunday, when 119 flights were canceled.

There also were 189 delays at LAX, according to FlightAware.com, and Montgomery said they would continue throughout the day.

“It is important for people to check their flight status because there are a large number of delays and cancellations,” he said.

A few canceled flights show up on the departure board in the Delta terminal at LAX on Dec. 27.
(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

FlightAware listed nearly 1,400 flights canceled within, into or out of the U.S. on Monday, and upward of 3,160 were stopped around the world for the day. That’s a slight improvement over the previous day, when there were 1,517 cancellations nationally and 3,274 globally.

At least 87 flights in or out of LAX were canceled Sunday as holiday travelers tried to get back home.

The disruptions come as the highly transmissible Omicron variant surges across California, contributing to a spike in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, and coincides with more people flying to see family and friends, potentially for the first time since the pandemic began nearly two years ago. Travel has doubled and tripled at some U.S. airports compared with 2020 levels, based on recent passenger screenings by the Transportation Security Administration.

Over the last week, California has averaged 11,914 new coronavirus cases, an increase of 72.9% compared with two weeks ago, according to The Times coronavirus tracker. There are 3,781 people hospitalized because of a confirmed case statewide, a 9.8% increase from two weeks ago.

At least 87 flights in or out of LAX were canceled Sunday as holiday travelers tried to get back home.

Some airlines have attributed hampered operations to a rash of Omicron infections among airline employees, limiting staffing — which was already driven down by pandemic-era cuts — during the holiday travel boom.

United Airlines canceled 115 of 4,000 flights scheduled for Monday, and Delta Air Lines expects to cancel upward of 200 of 4,166 flights, according to representatives for the airlines.

“The nationwide spike in Omicron cases has had a direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operation,” United said in a statement. “As a result, we’ve unfortunately had to cancel some flights and are notifying impacted customers in advance of them coming to the airport.”

United spokesperson Maddie King said the airline contacted passengers early throughout the weekend if their flights were canceled to give them time to rebook or make other travel arrangements. She said about 50% of all passengers arrived at their destination early or within four hours of their originally scheduled flight.

To the alarm of California health officials, Christmas is looking like Thanksgiving, when social gatherings boosted a coronavirus surge.

Delta said cancellations on its end were due in part to coronavirus effects as well as winter weather in some parts of the country. Inclement weather proved particularly disruptive at Delta’s hubs in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Seattle and Salt Lake City, the airline said on its website.

Delta canceled 374 of 4,155 scheduled mainline and connection flights Sunday, pointing to the same factors.

“Canceling a flight is always Delta’s last resort,” John Laughter, the company’s executive vice president and chief of operations, said in a statement. “The result is not only difficult for customers, but for our people who want nothing more than to take care of them — especially over the holidays.”

JetBlue reported 66 cancellations among 1,006 flights planned for Monday, “with the possibility of a few additional depending on crew availability,” airline spokesperson Derek Dombrowski said.

If you’re traveling by plane this holiday season, here are tips for reducing your COVID-19 risk as much as possible at the airport and on your flights.

The outbreak among airline industry staffers of coronavirus infections linked to the Omicron variant is striking not only during the busiest travel period of the year but also as airlines try to fill positions left vacant from mass furloughs initiated shortly after the pandemic began in 2020.

Airlines have been rehiring workers steadily over the last few months but are still short of pre-pandemic levels. In October, they employed 9% fewer full-time staffers than in the same month in 2019, according to the most recent data by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Several major U.S. air carriers imposed vaccine mandates on their employees months before the Biden administration required all companies that contract with the federal government — including airlines — to do so.

United Airlines reported that more than 99% of its employees were vaccinated by late October. By then, at least 90% of Delta employees were vaccinated.

As coronavirus infections rise, travel is skyrocketing in L.A. and across the country.

In eight of the last 11 days, TSA screeners have seen more than 2 million travelers in U.S. airports. Those figures are below pre-pandemic levels but are double — and sometimes triple — the levels from the same period in 2020.

An estimated 3.5 million visitors were expected to descend on LAX between Thursday and Jan. 3, nearing 2019’s levels, when 4.5 million travelers used the airport during the same period, according to airport officials.

Last year, 1.85 million passengers traveled through LAX during the holiday season, making this year almost twice as busy, officials said.

Sundays tend to be the busiest days, a trend that predates the pandemic.

“But it doesn’t mean we’re back to pre-pandemic numbers,” said Montgomery, the LAX spokesperson, noting the airport is still down about 25% on any given day from 2019 levels.

A pair of storms rolling into Southern California early this week are expected to prolong the region’s wet, rainy conditions and bring heavy snow to higher-elevation areas. Though the winter weather has triggered warnings and shuttered roads in some areas, Montgomery said it’s not expected to have a significant impact on operations at LAX.

Because the airport is connected to many other airfields, it’s more likely that major weather events in other parts of the country would impact operations.

“Anything that happens on even the East Coast is going to have a trickle-down effect to the West Coast,” he said.

Times staff writers Louis Sahagún and Gregory Yee contributed to this report.


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