Thousands left stranded over Christmas as flights cancelled due to Omicron spread

Sadiq Khan warns 'things only going to get worse' with Omicron

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The festive weekend is one of the US’s busiest weekends for travel, and saw airline crews forced to self-isolate as COVID-19 case numbers soar. FlightAware, which collates data on the aviation industry, reported that over 1,300 flights that touched down in the US were cancelled leading up to the end of Boxing Day.

Among these numbers are flights run by American airline Delta, which cancelled six percent of its flights on Sunday, according to FlightAware.

They reported that 12 percent of budget US airline JetBlue flights were scrapped, and five percent of United Airlines trips were ditched.

A Delta spokesperson told Sky News: “Winter weather in portions of the US and the Omicron variant continued to impact Delta’s holiday weekend flight schedule.”

They continued that Delta was working to”reroute and substitute aircraft and crews to get customers where they need to be as quickly and safely as possible”.

United Airlines cancelled 117 flights, according to FlightAware, with a spokesperson saying that a small percentage of passengers had been able to get tickets for different flights.

United Airlines’s spokesperson, Maddie King, said: “Importantly, 25% of customers whose travel was interrupted were able to rebook on flights that allowed them to get to their final destination earlier than they otherwise would have.”

An unnamed White House official told Sky News the US was “in a better place than last Christmas”, adding that “only a small percentage of flights are affected”.

The official added: “But any cancellations can be a pain and delay reunions with family and friends, so the Transportation Department and the Federal Aviation Administration are monitoring this closely.”

The state health department for New York warned on Christmas Eve that COVID-19 hospitalisations for children under 18 years old had quadrupled since the week of December 5.

The Omicron variant’s spread across the US has seen case numbers soar, with the New York Times’s COVID-19 tracker recording an average of 201,000 daily cases over the Christmas weekend.

However, although nearly 70,000 Americans were hospitalised with COVID-19 on December 24, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, this number is still well below previous peaks of the Delta variant.

With the number of COVID-19 cases and staff shortages across the aviation industry, an airline trade group petitioned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US to cut the recommended isolation period for a positive test.

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The New York Times reported that the group asked for the ten-day isolation to be cut in half, so employees in the sector can return to work on condition of a negative test on day five.

JetBlue executive Derek Dombrowski told the paper that “swift and safe adjustments by the C.D.C. would alleviate at least some of the staffing pressures and set up airlines to help millions of travelers returning from their holidays.”

This is a slightly different message from that sent by a union for flight attendants, which stated that “public health professionals, not airlines”, should determine isolation periods.

Although early studies into the effects of the Omicron variant indicate this strain causes less serious illness than earlier mutations, the US’s top infectious disease expert warned US citizens not to relax their vigilance in containing the spread of COVID-19.

University of Edinburgh scientists reported ahead of Christmas that the Omicron variant was up to 60 percent less likely to spell a hospital stay than the Delta variant.

Dr Anthony Fauci told ABC’s “This Week” on Boxing Day that to stop taking the virus seriously would mean seeing more and more unvaccinated people show up in hospital beds.

He said: “Even though we’re pleased by the evidence from multiple countries — it looks like there is a lesser degree of severity — we’ve got to be careful that we don’t get complacent about that.”

He added that tens of millions of Americans were still unvaccinated, and a sharp spike in hospital admissions could overwhelm health services.

“Those are the most vulnerable ones when you have a virus that is extraordinarily effective in getting to people and infecting them the way Omicron is.”

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