Travelers make their way through Miami International Airport on December 28, 2021 in Miami, Florida.
Joe Radl | Getty Images
Travel in 2021 ended up stressing thousands of people thanks to omicron. The rapidly spreading variant of the coronavirus has led to an increase in infection rates worldwide, including among airline employees.
US Airlines canceled more than 10,000 flights during the year-end holiday period as the option disabled pilots and flight attendants and bad weather hit hubs such as Seattle and Atlanta. Thousands more flights were delayed.
This is a small percentage of the total schedule – about 5%, according to flight tracking website FlightAware – but it disrupted the plans of tens of thousands of travelers during what airline executives predict will be the busiest since the outbreak of the pandemic. Since December 23, more than 15.6 million people have passed through TSA checkpoints at airports, nearly double the number a year ago.
Unlike accidents on Spirit, American and Southwest aircraft in the summer and fall, the recent wave of disruptions has spread to several airlines, including Delta, United, JetBlue, Alaska and SkyWest.
Here’s what you need to know:
If your airline cancels your flight and you choose not to fly on another flight, they must reimburse you in accordance with federal law. Airlines may offer airline credit, but passengers may ask for a full refund. According to the Ministry of Transport, this happens regardless of the reason for the cancellation: bad weather, staffing problems, or other problems.
“You can always get your money back if they can’t accommodate you, but that won’t get you home,” said Brett Snyder, who runs concierge services and Capricious pilot travel site.
DOT also advises that travelers are eligible for refunds if their flight is significantly delayed, but does not identify what falls into this category.
“Whether or not you are eligible for a refund depends on many factors, including the length of the delay, the length of the flight and your specific circumstances,” it said on its website. “DOT determines if you are eligible for a refund after significant delay on a case-by-case basis.”
Airlines are trying to cancel flights well before passengers reach the airport so that travelers can make alternative plans, preferably through self-service platforms in their apps or websites, and not overwhelm the ticket offices. JetBlue for example Jan 13 is cutting its schedule by about 1,280 flights in anticipation of an expected further increase in the number of omicron infections among staff.
“The worst type of cancellation, as we all know, is cancellation that happens at the airport,” JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes told CNBC on Thursday.
Waiting times on airline customer service lines during outages can sometimes be hours, although some carriers, such as Delta, will call you back when it’s your turn. The airlines also offer live chat services and often reply on Twitter.
Snyder recommends trying all available channels if you have backups.
As omicron continues to proliferate, some travelers may delay travel or may test positive and be unable to reach their destination when traveling overseas. Many countries have tightened travel restrictions since the omicron variant was discovered in late November. The United States, for example, now requires all arriving travelers, including US citizens, to test negative for Covid during the day of departure.
On Thursday, the State Department warned US citizens to travel overseas, as a positive test result in another country could mean travelers will have to be quarantined overseas at their own expense until they test negative.
“Foreign governments in any country can impose restrictions without prior notice,” the State Department added.
Major US airlines such as Delta, United and American have canceled huge change fees for standard economy tickets and above for both international and domestic flights. Travelers are still responsible for any difference in fares. Airlines have largely abolished the fare exemption for non-refundable basic economy class tickets in the pandemic era, but travelers should check with their specific airline.