JetBlue Cuts Flights Until Mid-January Expecting More Sick Calls to Omicron

JetBlue Airways’ Airbus A320 touches down at John F Kennedy International Airport in New York.

Nick Oiko | LightRocket | Getty Images

JetBlue Airways is cutting more than 1,280 flights from Thursday to mid-January in anticipation of new Covid-19 infections among pilots and flight attendants.

New York-based JetBlue and other carriers, including United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines, have canceled more than 4,000 flights since Christmas due to bad weather and an increase in sick calls from crews.

“This past week has been one of our toughest times during the pandemic,” three JetBlue executives wrote in a memo to employees that CNBC reviewed on Tuesday. “The exponential rise in Omicron cases in just a couple of days is at a level that no one could reasonably prepare for.”

They said the airline will cancel flights “to further outpace the expected increase in Omicron cases.” Scheduled flight cuts are just below 10% of JetBlue’s daily schedule.

JetBlue canceled 173 flights, or 17% of its schedule, on Thursday, while more than 1,000 flights were canceled nationwide, according to flight tracking website FlightAware. United Airlines, meanwhile, canceled 188 flights, or 8% of its main schedule, while regional airline SkyWest dropped 144, or 6%. Seattle-based Alaska Airlines canceled 95 flights, 14% of the planned flight.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday cut the recommended isolation time to five days from 10 for people who have tested positive for Covid but have no symptoms.

Last week, JetBlue followed Delta on urging the CDC to halve its recommendation to isolate new Covid cases to five days, warning of staff shortages and flight disruptions as the omicron spreads rapidly. Other airlines have followed suit.

JetBlue updated its vacation policy following the CDC’s announcement so that employees can return to work if symptoms clear up after five days.

JetBlue chiefs said in a note that they hope the new guidelines will help bring staff back faster, but added: “We know the number of Omicron cases has not yet peaked in the Northeast (and will not continue for at least another week or two) where the vast majority of our crew members are based. “

The Flight Attendants Association, the largest union of US flight attendants, urged the CDC not to make the change and said stricter protocols, such as a negative test to return to work and 10 days of isolation for unvaccinated workers who test positive, are needed.

“We believe this is the wrong move for aviation as it allows infected people to return to work or fly as passengers on our planes,” AFA International President Sarah Nelson wrote to airline CEOs on Wednesday. “While our union has not supported or endorsed the updated guidelines, we stand ready to work with airlines to implement the new rules in a way that protects workers and provides clarity and confidence for our passengers.”

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