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Christmas travelers stranded as omicron forces cancellation of thousands of flights

"It was a bit of a gut punch," said Jaclyn Stanton, 36, who was expecting to reunite with her parents for the first time since February 2020.
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Jaclyn Stanton was excited to reunite with her parents for the first time since February 2020, when she last saw them before the Covid-19 pandemic began.

Stanton said she and her husband were expecting to board their flight on Christmas morning from Chicago to Sacramento, California, where her family lives. But on Thursday night, she got a text alert from United Airlines informing her their flight had been canceled.

“It’s a bit of a bummer," said Stanton, 36, on Friday. "It was a bit of a gut punch last night.” 

Stanton is one of thousands of would-be travelers who were hoping to make it home for Christmas this year but were left stranded as airlines around the world canceled thousands of flights amid the spread of the omicron variant.

It's so frustrating. Everything should have been fine and then omicron hit.

Jaclyn Stanton, Chicago resident

Global airlines had collectively canceled more than 3,700 flights for Christmas Eve and Christmas day, according to the flight tracking website Flight Aware. Of those canceled, more than 1,000 had been scheduled within, into or out of the U.S.

Several major airlines, including United, Delta and Alaska, said they were forced to cancel hundreds of Christmas Eve flights after the omicron variant infected their employees and crew members.

On Friday, United cut a total of 192 flights; Delta, 264; and Alaska, 16, according to Flight Aware.

“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 Airlines said in a statement. The company said it would rebook as many travelers as possible.

Delta apologized, blaming the omicron variant and potentially severe weather in places like Seattle and Salt Lake City for the cancellations.

On Thursday, Alaska Airlines canceled 17 flights, adding that more cancellations were possible Friday "during this dynamic situation," the airline said in a statement.

An American Airlines spokesperson said no cancellations were planned. Southwest Airlines told the Associated Press that “things are running smoothly.” Other airlines did not immediately respond to inquiries about Friday’s schedule.

The highly transmissible omicron variant quickly grew to account for nearly three-fourths of Covid cases in the last week after millions of people had already booked their holiday travel plans.

Holiday air travel was expected to nearly triple compared to the same period last year, the American Automobile Association reported on Dec. 14. An estimated 109 million U.S. residents were expected to travel in planes, vehicles and other forms of transportation this month.

Many people took their complaints about the last-minute itinerary change to social media.

"Unfortunate that @Delta canceled our 6am flight 5.5 hours before it left," one person wrote on Twitter. "Got up at 3:30am, took a Sudafed (so I won’t be sleeping for 12-18 hours), and got in the car before we checked e-mails/notifications."

He continued: "Maybe flights before 9am should be canceled 12+ hours in advance."

Another Twitter user wrote: "All sorts of flights delayed or canceled as I leave honolulu. Short staffed airlines and illness are taking its toll."

As a high school chemistry teacher, Stanton said she had patiently waited for winter break to finally visit her family.

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

But as cases surged across the country, the Chicago resident said she grew increasingly concerned and prepared to take extra precautions like double masking onboard the flight. She was still clinging to the hope she would be reunited with her family after nearly two years apart.

Those hopes were quickly dashed after she got the text message.

"It's so frustrating," Stanton said. “Everything should have been fine and then omicron hit.”

Stanton said she received a full refund for her flight after "a lot of chaos" dealing with customer service.

For now, she and her husband plan to have Christmas together for the first time in the home they purchased earlier this year. Stanton said she was trying to remain positive, taking this year as an opportunity to “figure out what our Christmas traditions are going to be."