The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Thursday warned of further flight delays due to COVID-19-related staffing issues.
The FAA’s warning comes as airlines canceled more than 1,300 flights by Thursday night amid the recent Omicron variant surge. The airlines had already canceled roughly half as many for Friday and Saturday, the Wall Street Journal reports.
The FAA also warned that its air-traffic control staffing was at risk. That’s because an escalating number of air-traffic control staffers are testing positive for COVID-19.
“To maintain safety, traffic volume at some facilities could be reduced, which might result in delays during busy periods,” an FAA spokesman told the WSJ.
FAA Warning Coincides with Flight Cutbacks
Over the past week, airlines have canceled more than 4,000 flights due to staffing issues resulting from the Omicron surge, according to the Associated Press.
Part of the problem is the Omicron spike. But part of the problem is also reduced staffing levels from earlier in the pandemic. Last year, when demand plummeted, airlines basically encouraged employees to quit. And then when air travel demand recovered faster than expected this year, airlines scrambled to keep up.
“During the pandemic, we have seen experienced airline personnel leave the industry and not return across the globe,” John Grant, a senior analyst at the travel industry research firm OAG, told the AP. “Filling those skill gaps was already a challenge in the recovery before the latest variant.”
Now compounding that problem is a rash of COVID-19 cases among the staffers who did come back to work. As American, Delta, JetBlue, and United have canceled flights this past week, they have pointed to recent coronavirus cases among their crews as the reason.
Omicron “had a direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operation,” a United spokesperson emailed to Axios last Friday. “As a result, we’ve unfortunately had to cancel some flights. And [we] are notifying impacted customers in advance of them coming to the airport.”
Delta said it had “exhausted all options and resources,” including rerouting and substitutions before it began canceling flights.
Airlines and Flight Attendants at Odds over Isolation Period
Meanwhile, airlines asked the Biden administration to cut the mandatory quarantine period from 10 days to five days. Their goal was to reduce staffing issues due to Omicron absences.
On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) chopped the recommended isolation period after contracting COVID-19 in half.
“I definitely think that should help,” Raymond James analyst Savanthi Syth told the AP of the CDC’s new guidance, referring to the staffing issues and flight delays.
But the Association of Flight Attendants-CW had written to the CDC asking for the 10-day isolation period to remain in place. They argued that under current flying conditions, the last thing crew members need is to be working alongside contagious colleagues.
“The Association of Flight Attendants… feels strongly that this type of decision should be based on science, not staffing. And they should be made by public health professionals, not airlines,” the union said in its letter. “The current climate in the passenger cabin is highly stressed… Flight Attendants should not be expected to return to work until they test negative and do not exhibit symptoms. We do not know if 10 days represents that ‘magic number.’ But we do not see the justification for reducing the number of days at this time.”