WestJet Airlines says it is being forced to cut 15 per cent of its flights through to the end of January as it deals with staffing shortages due to the Omicron variant.
“We are running roughly 450 flights a day. So if you look at the percentages, that works out to be about 60 or 70 flights that you might see that would be cancelled per day and then consolidated onto other flights,” said WestJet VP of communications Richard Bartrem.
Bartrem said they are currently re-jigging flights and contacting travelers.
“For example, where we may have four or five flights to a particular destination over the course of the day, we might consolidate that into two or three and then take the people who are flying on those other flights that have now been canceled and moving them onto the flights that will continue to operate.”
He said travelers will have the option of taking other flights or getting a refund.
The Calgary-based airline says it has seen a 35 per cent increase in active cases among staff in recent days, with 181 WestJet employees currently affected by COVID-19. Bertram said Omicron has had a major impact on staff.
“Since the start of this in March 2020 we’ve had a total of 577 cases where WestJetters have…tested positive with COVID. 181 of those or 31% have actually occurred within the last week so it really does demonstrate the rapid increase that we are seeing with the Omicron variant.”
Bartrem said WestJet is calling on both the federal and provincial governments to revisit the isolation period, saying in the United States the Center for Disease Control has moved their isolation period from 10 days down to five.
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The Saskatchewan government has already gone ahead and decreased the self-isolation requirement to five days from the date of a positive test or 48 hours after symptoms have ended.
But Gil McGowan with the Alberta Federation of Labour said the only people who benefit from that are employers.
“If we move in that direction – and I want to make it clear we think it’s completely wrong-headed that the U.S. moved in that direction – but if we here in Canada do the same we will be putting workers at risk and we will be putting the public at risk,” said McGowan.
Air Canada, meantime, said it’s monitoring the situation, but blames current flight delays mainly on poor weather conditions.
In a statement to Global News, the airline said: “Air Canada continues to evaluate and adjust its route network as required in response to the trajectory of the pandemic, government-imposed travel restrictions and quarantines, regulatory requirements and overall demand. Affected customers will be contacted by Air Canada and offered options, including refunds for eligible customers and alternative routings where available.”
Aviation analyst Karl Moore expects Air Canada will soon be in the same boat as WestJet.
“I wouldn’t be surprised because they’re very similar conditions to what WestJet is going through — the weather problems, the Omicron problems are the same ones. They’re in the same country. They’re just a bit bigger airline and a bit more international as well. So I would not be surprised if Air Canada had a similar announcement later this week or early next week.”
The announcement comes as more than 850 flights were cancelled in the U.S. on Wednesday, according to data from the flight-tracking website FlightAware. There were nearly 1,300 cancellations for flights entering, leaving or inside the U.S. Tuesday, and about 1,500 on Monday.
Cancellations began to spike the day before Christmas during what is already a buzzing pace for airlines this time of year.
Delta, United and JetBlue have all said that the Omicron variant was causing enough staffing issues that flights were cancelled.
Omicron has intensified already significant staffing issues for airlines, which winnowed workforces in 2020 as air travel collapsed, only to be broadsided when vaccination rates jumped and millions of people felt comfortable flying again this year.
That could translate to travel headaches for hundreds of thousands of people if cancellations maintain the current pace into the weekend. The Transportation Security Administration expects the Monday after New Year’s will be one of the busiest days of the holiday season.
According to TSA checkpoint data, the numbers of people flying this holiday season far exceeds last year, before COVID-19 vaccinations were available, but still trails 2019 traveler numbers.
With files from The Associated Press and The Canadian Press