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Hundreds of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day flights canceled amid omicron surge

United and Delta are both experiencing high numbers of canceled flights as holiday travel ramps up.

CHICAGO — There could be extra delays for thousands of travelers over Christmas weekend after major airlines canceled hundreds of flights, at least in part, because of COVID-19 cases among flight crews. 

Delta Air Lines and United Airlines said they canceled flights because of staff shortages tied to the omicron variant. Delta canceled 145 flights on Friday and 111 for Christmas Day, according to the flight tracking site FlightAware. Other factors, such as weather, are also causing cancellations. United called off 175 flights on Friday and 69 on Saturday. 

“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 said in a statement. “As a result, we’ve unfortunately had to cancel some flights and are notifying impacted customers in advance of them coming to the airport.”

However, coronavirus-related cancelations do not appear to be hitting every airline. American Airlines told the Associated Press on Friday that it had “nothing to report,” while Southwest Airlines said “things are running smoothly.” 

Delta said a combination of issues that included the impact of the omicron variant and potential bad weather prompted its holiday cancelations. 

“Delta teams have exhausted all options and resources -- including rerouting and substitutions of aircraft and crews to cover scheduled flying -- before canceling around 135 flights for Friday," company officials said. "We apologize to our customers for the delay in their holiday travel plans. Delta people are working hard to get them to where they need to be as quickly and as safely as possible on the next available flight.”

Alaska Airlines put out a similar statement Thursday, confirming that many employees had been exposed to the coronavirus and were following the company's quarantine guidelines at home. 

The airline said 17 flights were canceled Thursday because of the issue, and more could be on the way for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. 

"We apologize to our guests impacted by the cancellations that may have taken a bit of the merry out of this holiday season," Alaska said in a statement. "We realize it’s incredibly frustrating when travel doesn’t go as planned, especially now as many of us are eager to connect with family and friends."

Germany-based Lufthansa said Friday that it was canceling a dozen long-haul transatlantic flights over the Christmas holiday period because of a “massive rise” in sick leave among pilots. The cancellations on flights to Houston, Boston and Washington come despite a “large buffer” of additional staff for the period. The airline said it couldn’t say whether COVID-19 was responsible because it was not informed about the sort of illness.

American Airlines said on Christmas Eve that their flights were operating at a "99.7% completion factor," meaning nearly all of their scheduled flights had no issues. 

Christmas is one of the busiest times to travel in the U.S., with AAA predicting more than 109 million people traveling more than 50 miles sometime over the holiday period. 

2020 faced a low amount of travelers because of lockdowns and coronavirus fears. But as vaccines become more widespread nationwide, travelers are beginning to see family whom they may not have visited for years. 2021's estimated totals are about 92% of 2019 travel levels, according to AAA. 

According to FlightAware, there are nearly 3,400 canceled flights on Friday and Saturday, with at least half of the cancellations by Chinese airlines. About 20% of affected flights — 745 — were to, from or within the U.S. This is a small fraction of global flights. FlightAware says it has tracked more than 120,000 arrivals in the past 24 hours. 

The omicron variant of the virus appears to be even more contagious than the dominant delta strain, even among the vaccinated, although it does not appear that the newest strain of concern is as deadly as previous versions of the virus. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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