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New year brings more canceled flights for travelers

People wait in an airport.
Travelers wait at Love Field airport in Dallas on Friday. Wintry weather around the country contributed to flight cancellations.
(LM Otero / Associated Press)

For air travelers, the new year picked up where the old one left off — with lots of frustration.

By Saturday afternoon, about 2,700 U.S. flights and nearly 4,600 worldwide had been canceled, according to the tracking service FlightAware.

That is the highest single-day U.S. figure yet since just before Christmas, when airlines began canceling flights, citing staffing shortages due to increasing coronavirus infections among crews. More than 12,000 U.S. flights have been canceled since Dec. 24.

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Saturday’s disruptions weren’t just due to the virus. Wintry weather made Chicago the worst place in the country for travelers, with more than 800 flights scrubbed at O’Hare International Airport and more than 250 at Midway International Airport. Forecasts called for 9 inches of snow. Denver, Detroit and Newark, N.J., recorded at least 100 cancellations each.

Southwest Airlines suspended operations at Midway and O’Hare due to the grim forecast, according to an airline spokeswoman. She said Southwest knows from years of operating at Midway that high winds and blowing snow make it hard to get planes back in the air quickly.

Southwest had canceled more than 450 flights nationwide, or 13% of its schedule, by midmorning Saturday. American Airlines and Delta Air Lines scrubbed more than 200 flights each, and United Airlines dropped more than 150.

SkyWest, a regional carrier that operates flights under the names American Eagle, Delta Connection and United Express, grounded 480 flights, one-fourth of its schedule. A spokesperson blamed weather in Chicago, Denver and Detroit and COVID-19 illnesses.

COVID-19 just broke its year-old record for new U.S. infections in a week. But this time, far fewer hospitalizations and deaths are likely to follow.

Among international carriers, China Eastern canceled more than 500 flights, or about one-fourth of its total, and Air China canceled more than 200, one-fifth of its schedule, according to FlightAware.

Sunday, when many travelers plan to return from holiday trips, is shaping up to be difficult too. More than 1,900 flights, including more than 1,000 in the U.S., were canceled by late Saturday. A winter storm with heavy snow is expected to march toward the Northeast as a new storm hits the Pacific Northwest, according to the National Weather Service.

Airlines say they are taking steps to reduce cancellations. United is offering to pay pilots three times their usual wages or more for picking up open flights through mid-January. Spirit Airlines reached a deal with the Assn. of Flight Attendants for double pay for cabin crews through Tuesday, said a union spokeswoman.

When winter weather hit the Pacific Northwest earlier this week, Alaska Airlines urged customers to delay any “nonessential” trips that were planned through this weekend. With full flights over the New Year’s holiday weekend, the airline said it could take at least three days to rebook stranded passengers.

Airlines hope that extra pay and reduced schedules get them through the holiday crush and into the heart of January, when travel demand usually drops off. The seasonal decline could be sharper than normal this year because most business travelers are still grounded.

Travelers who stuck to the roads instead of the skies faced challenges, too. Transportation officials in the Midwest warned motorists that a mix of rain and snow could make roads slippery and reduce visibility, leading to hazardous driving conditions.


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