Airlines cancel 10,000 flights during severe winter storms and scramble to rebook holiday travelers

Airlines cancel 10,000 flights during severe winter storms and scramble to rebook holiday travelers

An American Airlines plane is de-iced as high winds whip around 7.5 inches of new snow at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport Thursday, December 22, 2022.

Star Tribune Via Getty Images | Star Tribune | Getty Images

U.S. flight cancellations eased somewhat on Saturday but federal officials warned that disruptions could continue as severe winter storms snarled air travel across the country ahead of Christmas.

U.S.-based airlines have canceled more than 10,000 flights since Wednesday, according to flight tracker FlightAware.

The bad weather and flight disruptions upended the holiday travel plans of hundreds of thousands of people during what airlines expect to be one of the busiest periods since before the pandemic.

Airlines and travelers were hard-pressed to find alternative flights before the holiday because planes were booked so full and schedules dropped sharply during the weekend. The Federal Aviation Administration said schedules peaked at 47,554 flights on Thursday, dropping to 30,875 on Saturday and just 27,997 on Sunday, Christmas Day.

That could force airlines to provide cash refunds to travelers who decide to scrap their trips altogether because of the delays.

FedEx and UPS warned holiday packages could arrive late due to the storms.

Airlines scrubbed about 5,600 flights on Friday alone, about a quarter of the schedule, when storms swept through cities from the Pacific Northwest to the East Coast, bringing life-threatening cold to many areas. Federal forecasters warned of dangerous road conditions from ice and low visibility.

“Wind and blowing snow could cause delays in Chicago, and wind could cause delays in and around Washington, D.C., New York, Boston and Philadelphia,” the FAA said Saturday morning. “Seattle, San Francisco and airports serving Colorado ski resorts could see delays from low clouds and visibility.”

More than 2,200 Saturday flights were canceled and 5,000 more were delayed.

Delays are also possible in Florida because of the high number of seasonal flights, the FAA added.

A jet taxis in snow at O’Hare International Airport on December 22, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois.

Scott Olson | Getty Images

Extreme cold and high winds also slowed operations at dozens of airports. Fifty-eight percent of U.S. flights arrived late on Friday, by an average of nearly 90 minutes, FlightAware data showed.

The disruptions stemmed from weather that hit all major U.S. carriers.

JetBlue Airways offered flight attendants triple pay to pick up trips on Saturday.

“Winter Storm Elliott has driven thousands of weather-related delays and cancellations across the nation,” according to a JetBlue staff memo, which was seen by CNBC. “There has also been an increased Crewmember absence rate, leaving us with many open trips for today.”

JetBlue said it would also still include holiday pay for those flight attendants, under their collective bargaining agreement.

Southwest Airlines, which has a large operation in Chicago and in Denver, canceled more than 1,300 flights, about a third of its schedule, while 2,000 others, half of its schedule, were delayed.

The Southwest Airlines Pilot Association, the airline’s pilots’ union, said 52% of pilots were rerouted on Thursday.

SWAPA said that ground operations managers in Denver had declared an “operational emergency” on Thursday, and required staff to provide doctors’ notes for calling out sick.

James Garofalo of Colorado Springs is checking cellphone after his flight cancelation at Denver International Airport in Denver, Colorado on Thursday, December 22, 2022.

Hyoung Chang | Denver Post | Getty Images

Seattle-based Alaska Airlines canceled more than 500 flights, or 65% of its schedule on Friday, and said planes and airport ramps were covered in thick sheets of ice, slowing its Pacific Northwest operations.

“While it’s difficult, especially at this time of year, we strongly encourage guests to reassess their need to travel due to continued icy weather and limited availability,” it said on Friday. “Due to very full flights over the next several days, it is likely to take several days to accommodate guests who need new flights.”

An inside look at how the FAA and airlines deal with bad weather