Continued flight cancellations and increasing numbers of staff testing positive for Covid-19 are making an already dire situation worse for the U.S. airline industry. Now, following thousands of missed flights and worker shortages, some airlines like United are opting to preemptively reduce their schedules.
United CEO Scott Kirby acknowledged the scheduling pivot, as well as the surge of cancellations and sick workers, in a letter posted on LinkedIn Tuesday. Kirby claimed 3,000 United workers have tested positive for Covid-19 and that as much as a third of the company’s Newark, New Jersey workforce called out sick in a single day. Those 3,000 workers make up about 4% of United’s total workforce, according to CNBC.
The CEO hopes the new efforts to scale back United’s schedule will potentially allow the company to shore up what limited staff and resources are currently available. United isn’t alone either. JetBlue Airlines recently announced it would preemptively cancel 1,280 flights for the first half of January while Alaska Airlines plans to cut about 10% of its January flights. All told, around 5,000 flights were canceled across U.S. airlines over the past weekend according to FlightAware data noted in The New York Times.
It’s not all bad news though. Kirby also credited United’s contentious Covid-19 vaccine mandate for preventing any of its workers from dying or being hospitalized from the virus so far. The vast majority of United’s workforce is currently vaccinated, though about 2,000 employees have reportedly applied for medical or religious exemptions.
“Since our vaccine policy went into effect, the hospitalization rate among our employees has been 100x lower than the general population in the U.S,” Kirby said. “Prior to our vaccine requirement, tragically, more than one United employee on average *per week* was dying from COVID. But we’ve now gone eight straight weeks with zero COVID-related deaths among our vaccinated employees—based on United’s prior experience and the nationwide data related to COVID fatalities among the unvaccinated, that means there are approximately 8-10 United employees who are alive today because of our vaccine requirement.”
As of writing, most major U.S. airlines now require their employees to be vaccinated against Covid-19 though there are some notable exceptions. Delta, for example, still does not require employee vaccinations though the company’s CEO has previously claimed 90% of its employees were vaccinated regardless of a mandate. Southwest Airlines has also yet to require vaccinations for employees.
The mass cancellations and worker callouts build on what’s been a disastrous last month for the airline industry. Thousands of travelers and airline workers had their lives uprooted over the holidays as virus-related disruptions and weather events led to nearly 4,000 flights canceled on Christmas Eve and Christmas day alone. Since then, airlines have continually canceled hundreds of flights daily. The CDC, during the midst of this wave of cancellations, officially shortened its recommended isolation and quarantine period for asymptomatic or recovering individuals who had tested positive for Covid-19 from 10 to five days.
Though it’s difficult to imagine, it’s possible the situation could grow even worse as the omicron variant spreads to more regions and is quickly becoming accounting for the overwhelming majority of Covid-19 cases. In addition to trimming upcoming schedules, some airlines like United and Southwest are trying to combat the glut of sick workers by offering double (and even triple) pay for pilots to take on more trips.