United, Delta Cancel Some Flights as Omicron Spreads

United Airlines Holdings Inc.

UAL 0.67%

is canceling dozens of flights over the holiday weekend as a surge of Covid-19 cases affects crews, and

Delta Air Lines Inc.

DAL 0.43%

also cited the Omicron variant as a factor behind a number of cancellations.

At both airlines, the cancellations account for a relatively small share of planned flying.

United has canceled about 136 flights scheduled for Friday, about 7% of its planned schedule, and about 28 that were slated for Saturday, according to FlightAware, a flight-tracking site.

To help combat Omicron, the Biden administration is opening up more Covid-19 testing sites and delivering 500 million Covid tests to Americans. WSJ’s Daniela Hernandez breaks down why testing is still a pain point in the U.S., two years into the pandemic. Photo illustration: David Fang

United said it was scrubbing some flights as a step in an effort to minimize last-minute disruptions. Some pilots and flight attendants won’t be able to work because of Covid-19 infection or exposure.

“The nationwide spike in Omicron cases this week has had a direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operation,” United said in a statement.

A United spokeswoman said the carrier is taking steps such as using larger aircraft and rerouting pilots to cover flying.

Delta said there are multiple factors behind its decision to cancel some flights in the coming days, including the impact of the Omicron variant and potentially bad weather in some areas.

“Delta teams have exhausted all options and resources—including rerouting and substitutions of aircraft and crews to cover scheduled flying—before canceling around 90 flights for Friday,” the airline said in a statement.

Alaska Air Group Inc.

ALK 1.59%

said it canceled 17 flights Thursday after some employees reported that they may have been exposed to the virus, and said it may have to cut more. The airline said it was offering “extra pay for our healthy employees who can work added shifts into this upcoming Christmas weekend.”

Airlines have said they expect this week and next to be among the busiest since before the pandemic. U.S. airports have been bustling even as restaurants, entertainment venues and other businesses have started to feel the effects of the surging case numbers.

Other carriers have cautioned in recent days that there could be worker shortages that disrupt operations as the Omicron variant races across the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends that fully vaccinated people with breakthrough infections remain isolated for 10 days—something that the chief executives of Delta and

JetBlue Airways Corp.

have asked to shorten.

The FDA has cleared Merck’s new Covid-19 therapy molnupiravir, the latest antiviral that adults can take at home to avoid severe disease. WSJ’s Daniela Hernandez explains the science behind the new drug. Photo: Merck

Airlines for America, a trade group that represents major carriers including United, Delta and JetBlue, echoed that request in another letter Thursday.

“That workforce is essential to enable Americans who need to travel domestically or internationally and to keep cargo supply chains operational,” A4A Chief Executive

Nick Calio

wrote to CDC Director

Rochelle Walensky.

“As with healthcare, police, fire and public transportation workforces, the Omicron surge may exacerbate personnel shortages and create significant disruptions to our workforce and operations.”

The CDC on Thursday updated its guidance to recommend that healthcare workers with Covid-19 who don’t have symptoms can return to work after seven days with a negative test and that isolation times can be further cut if there are staffing shortages. The agency specified that its new guidelines apply only to healthcare workers.

Several carriers were already dealing with labor shortages as they restored flights this year, though United has largely avoided many of those problems.

United was among the first major U.S. companies to impose a strict vaccine mandate on its workforce. The airline has said that most of its 67,000 U.S. employees are vaccinated, including all its customer-facing workers, while 2,000 requested exemptions for medical or religious reasons. Delta has imposed a $200 monthly surcharge for unvaccinated workers and has also said that most of its workforce is vaccinated.

Corrections & Amplifications
United has canceled about 28 flights slated for Saturday, according to FlightAware, a flight tracking site. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Sunday. (Corrected on Dec. 23)

Write to Alison Sider at

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