New Year’s Eve is the final act in another tumultuous year for air travel.
Thousands of flights have been canceled over Christmas and New Year’s Eve weekend, as the COVID-19 omicron variant continued its rapid spread, putting pressure on staffing at airports and airlines, while snowstorms in some U.S. regions making a challenging situation even worse.
Passengers and crew expressed their frustration online. One woman wrote on Twitter TWTR, -1.97% of the busy holiday season: “Probably none of you care or follow me for this kind of stuff, but f***, being a flight attendant during the holidays is no fun. I swear if I get canceled or re-routed one more time, I’m going to lose my mind.”
Another passenger lamented about her canceled flight: “I tried to rebook, but their website was down. I called. Spent and hour on the phone only to get hung up on with speaking with anyone. Called again. Another hour and a half on hold.” These sentiments have been expressed online throughout the holiday period.
There were 2,907 flights canceled worldwide so far on New Year’s Eve and 3,149 on Thursday, while 1,432 flights to or out of the U.S. were canceled on New Year’s Eve and 1,441 on Thursday, according to FlightAware, which tracks real-time delays and cancelations. Those figures are expected to rise Friday.
Among the U.S. airlines, Delta Air Lines DAL, +0.46% had canceled 109 flights on New Year’s and 163 on Thursday, while United Airlines UAL, -0.29% had canceled 214 flights on New Year’s Eve and 223 on Thursday. Airlines said that they were working hard to re-route flights, and substitute aircraft and crews.
Many passengers are also worried about testing positive while on vacation, which would be an expensive delay their return home. Most airlines have made it easier to cancel and receive a refund online or through their app, and many offer flights with no-fee changes. Some airlines offer text messaging within their apps.
Adit Damodaran, an economist with travel app Hopper, told MarketWatch that outbound and inbound airfares are 9% and 13% lower compared with 2019 prices, showing the fall in demand for air travel as more “breakthrough” coronavirus cases are reported among people with vaccinations.
Increase in air-rage incidents
There is reason for passengers to be jumpy. Only 62% of the U.S. population is currently fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and just 33% have received the booster shot. COVID-19 vaccines have been shown to reduce the risk of hospitalization and death.
At the end of 2021, daily hospitalizations topped 80,000 amid the spread of the highly transmittable omicron variant. COVID-19 has killed 820,355 Americans. There is a daily average of 344,543 new cases in the U.S., up 181% over two weeks, according to the New York Times tracker.
The number of air-rage incidents has also spiked over the last year, according to the Federal Aviation Administration as nervous and angry passengers fought over social distancing, whether or not to wear masks and, in some cases, appeared to have been under the influence of alcohol during their flight.
The were 5,300 such incidents reported this year, according to FAA data released at the end of November, compared to just hundreds per year before the pandemic. In a memo, Attorney General Merrick Garland directed U.S. attorneys to take a harder line, and prosecute such cases. It’s against federal law to threaten airline staff.
“Passengers who assault, intimidate or threaten violence against flight crews and flight attendants do more than harm those employees; they prevent the performance of critical duties that help ensure safe air travel,” Garland said in a statement issued last month.
“The Department of Justice is committed to using its resources to do its part to prevent violence, intimidation, threats of violence and other criminal behavior that endangers the safety of passengers, flight crews and flight attendants on commercial aircraft,” he added. Such acts, he said, endanger everyone onboard.
Vaccinated travelers are more likely to report feeling concerned about traveling during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a recent survey by polling company Morning Consult. Forty-three percent of people said they cut down on travel due to health concerns, while 41% did so due to fears of how other travelers would act.
“Concern over other people’s irresponsible actions has prompted many would-be flyers to stay home or seek other forms of transportation, but they largely stop short of blaming airlines for such incidents,” the company said in a blog post. Fifty-nine percent blame other travelers, while only 22% blame the airline or staff.
‘Sit down, Karen!’
One of latest incidents involved a woman who once had a minor role on the television show, “Baywatch.” On her way back from the restroom, she was filmed standing over a seated passenger, telling him to put his mask on. “Mask up!” she screamed. “Sit down, Karen!” the man hollered back.
Neither the woman, who is now being referred to as “Delta Karen,” nor the man were wearing face masks during the shouting match. According to the footage, she then appeared to strike the man across the head. “You’re going to jail!” he shot back. Crew members restrained the woman and pulled her down the aisle.
When the Delta flight from Tampa to Atlanta finally landed on Thursday, Federal Bureau of Investigation agents took her into custody. “Situations like these are rare for the vast majority of our customers and Delta has zero tolerance for unruly behavior at our airports and aboard our aircraft,” the airline said.
The tolerance of passengers in 2021 is a more complicated question. In an effort to alleviate the pressure on airline staffing, U.S. health officials this week reduced isolation times for those who test positive for COVID-19 but have no symptoms from 10 to five days, and cut the time that close contacts need to self-quarantine.
On Dec. 21, Delta Air Lines chief executive officer Ed Bastian, medical advisor Carlos del Rio and chief health officer Henry Ting wrote to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Rochelle Walensky, imploring her to reconsider the agency’s recommended isolation times.
“This guidance was developed in 2020 when the pandemic was in a different phase without effective vaccines and treatments. At Delta, over 90% of our workforce are fully vaccinated, and those rates are increasing daily,” they wrote. They compared the plight of staff to healthcare, police, fire, and public-transportation workers.
That will help allow employees who tested positive to return to work sooner with a negative COVID-19 test, thus helping stranded passengers during the latest omicron wave. But the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA International , an industry labor union, said it will do little to help overworked airline staff.
Sara Nelson, the president of the AFA, told CNN, “This guidance was put in place at the behest of corporate America. It was not put in place for public-health initiatives and, frankly, that makes our jobs even harder.” The labor union does, however, support a vaccine requirement for domestic travel. There is none, currently.