Travelers make their way through Miami International Airport on December 28, 2021 in Miami, Florida.
Joe Raedle | Getty Images
Travel in 2021 ended on a stressful note for thousands thanks to omicron. The fast-spreading coronavirus variant has driven up infection rates around the world, including among airline staff.
U.S. airlines have canceled more than 10,000 flights over the year-end holiday period as the variant sidelined pilots and flight attendants and bad weather hit hubs such as Seattle and Atlanta. Thousands more flights were delayed.
It’s a small percentage of overall schedules — about 5%, according to flight-tracking site FlightAware — but it has disrupted the plans of tens of thousands of travelers during what airline executives had forecast to be the busiest time since the pandemic began. Since Dec. 23, more than 15.6 million people have passed through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints at airports, almost double the number a year ago.
Unlike the meltdowns at Spirit, American and Southwest in the summer and fall, the recent spate of disruptions is spread among several airlines, including Delta, United, JetBlue, Alaska and SkyWest.
Here’s what to know:
If your airline cancels your flight and you choose not to take an alternate flight, they owe you a refund under federal law. Airlines could offer credit with the airline, but passengers can ask for a full refund. This is the case regardless of the reason for the cancellation: bad weather, staffing problems or other issues, according to the Department of Transportation.
“You can always get your money back if they can’t accommodate you, but it doesn’t get you home,” said Brett Snyder, who runs a travel concierge service and the Cranky Flier travel website.
The DOT also says travelers are owed refunds if their flight is significantly delayed, though it does not define what falls into that category.
“Whether you are entitled to a refund depends on many factors — including the length of the delay, the length of the flight, and your particular circumstances,” it says on its website. “DOT determines whether you are entitled to a refund following a significant delay on a case-by-case basis.”
Airlines attempt to cancel flights long before passengers get to the airport so travelers can make alternative plans, preferably through self-serve platforms on their apps or websites, and don’t overwhelm ticket counters. JetBlue, for example, is trimming about 1,280 flights from its schedule though Jan. 13, ahead of an expected further increase in the number of omicron infections among staff.
“The worst type of cancellation, as we all know, is that cancellation that happens at the airport,” JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes told CNBC on Thursday.
Hold times on airline customer service phone lines during a period of disruptions can sometimes be hours, though some carriers, such as Delta, will ring you back when it’s your turn. Airlines also offer chat services and often respond on Twitter.
Snyder recommends trying all available channels when there are backups.
With omicron continuing to spread, some travelers might opt to put off travel or may test positive and be unable to reach their destination if traveling abroad. Many countries have tightened travel restrictions since the omicron variant was detected in late November. The United States, for example, now requires all inbound travelers, including U.S. citizens, to test negative for Covid within a day of departure.
The State Department on Thursday warned U.S. citizens about international travel, as testing positive in another country could mean travelers have to quarantine abroad, at their own expense, until they test negative.
“Foreign governments in any country may implement restrictions with little notice,” the State Department added.
Large U.S. airlines such as Delta, United and American have done away with the hefty change fees for standard economy tickets and above, both for international and domestic flights. Travelers are still responsible for any difference in fare. Airlines have largely ended pandemic-era fee waivers for nonrefundable basic economy tickets, but travelers should check with their specific airline.