Airlines cancel 10,000 flights, scramble to rebook travelers

An American Airlines plane de-ices as high winds whip around 7.5 inches of new snow in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Dijous International Airport, December 22, 2022.

Star Tribune via Getty Images | Star Tribune | Getty Images

US flight cancellations eased slightly on Saturday, but federal officials warned disruptions could continue as severe winter storms wreaked havoc on air travel across the country before Christmas.

US-based airlines have canceled more than 10,000 flights since Wednesday, according to flight tracker FlightAware.

Bad weather and flight disruptions disrupted the holiday travel plans of hundreds of thousands of people during what airlines expect to be one of the busiest periods since before the pandemic.

Airlines and travelers struggled to find alternative flights before the holiday because planes were so full and schedules dropped sharply over the weekend. The Federal Aviation Administration said schedules peaked at 47,554 flights on Thursday, dropping to 30,875 on Saturday and just 27,997 on Sunday, Christmas Day.

This could force airlines to provide cash refunds to travelers who decide to abandon their trips altogether due to delays.

FedEx i UPS warned that holiday packages could arrive late because of the storms.

Airlines cleared about 5,600 flights on Friday alone, about a quarter of the schedule, as storms lashed cities from the Pacific Northwest to the East Coast, bringing life-threatening cold to many areas. Federal meteorologists warned of hazardous road conditions due to ice and poor visibility.

“Wind and snow may cause delays in Chicago, and wind may cause delays in and around Washington, DC, New York, Boston and Philadelphia,” the FAA said Saturday morning. “Seattle, San Francisco and airports serving Colorado ski resorts could see delays due to low clouds and visibility.”

More than 2,200 flights were canceled on Saturday and another 5,000 were delayed.

Delays are also possible in Florida due to the high number of seasonal flights, the FAA added.

A jet taxi in the snow at O’Hare International Airport on December 22, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois.

Scott Olson | Getty Images

Extreme cold and strong winds also slowed operations at dozens of airports. Fifty-eight percent of U.S. flights arrived late Friday, averaging nearly 90 minutes, according to FlightAware data.

The disruptions stemmed from weather affecting all major US carriers.

JetBlue Airways offered flight attendants triple pay for picking up rides on Saturday.

“Winter Storm Elliott has caused thousands of weather-related delays and cancellations across the country,” according to a memo from JetBlue staff, which was seen by CNBC. “There has also been an increase in the crew absence rate, leaving us with many trips open for today.”

JetBlue said it would also include vacation pay for those flight attendants, according to its collective bargaining agreement.

Southwest Airlineswhich has a large operation in Chicago and Denver, canceled more than 1,300 flights, about a third of its schedule, while another 2,000, half of its schedule, were delayed.

The Southwest Airlines Pilot Association, the airline’s pilot union, said 52 percent of pilots were rerouted Thursday.

SWAPA said ground operations managers in Denver had declared an “operational emergency” on Thursday and required staff to provide doctors’ notes to call in sick.

James Garofalo of Colorado Springs checks his cell phone after his flight was canceled at Denver International Airport in Denver, Colo., Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022.

Hyoung Chang | Denver Post | Getty Images

Based in Seattle Alaska Airlines canceled more than 500 flights, or 65 percent of its schedule, on Friday and said planes and airport ramps were covered in thick sheets of ice, slowing its operations in the Pacific Northwest.

“While it is difficult, especially this time of year, we strongly encourage guests to reassess their need for travel due to the continued icy weather and limited availability,” he said Friday. “Due to very full flights over the next few days, it is likely to take several days to accommodate guests requiring new flights.”

An inside look at how the FAA and airlines deal with bad weather

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