Two Years Into the Pandemic, New Challenges as Omicron Impacts Airline Staffing 

Two years into the pandemic, and COVID is still coming up with new ways to challenge the beleaguered travel industry.

A wave of flight cancellations that started over the holidays continues to gain speed.

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There’s a trifecta of hurdles  influencing flight cancellations for Canadians these days. Some of them are old hat.

Airlines cited bad weather – an issue Canadian carriers are well used to handling – as having the biggest impact on flight cancellations during much of the holidays.

Even some of COVID’s impacts are regrettably familiar problems for operators to deal with at this point in the pandemic.

A two-fer of the reinstated federal government advice to avoid non-essential travel, which has reduced passenger demand, as well as increasing infection rates in some destinations, is causing airlines to cancel flights and / or consolidate flights into reduced schedules.

This, during the all-important sun season which was hoped would be the first, big boost to travel’s recovery.

Matters of airline cancellations were made unnecessarily confusing for travellers and travel advisors on Monday. As Open Jaw reported, a piece of fake news that made the rounds of media and social media erroneously cited a year-old Air Canada release announcing the cancellation of all flights to sun destinations beginning 31JAN. It was mistakenly referring to the request of Ottawa last winter for all airlines to shut down sun routes to tamp down the spread of COVID through travel. While some cancellations are happening right now, they are on a case-by-case basis, not an entire shut down of service to the entire Caribbean and Mexico sun destination region. 

It’s another challenge for airlines that’s new: staff shortages. But not due to the process of ramping up operations and bringing back furloughed employees.

That was last year.

Omicron’s “Major Impact”

This is a new twist. Twist of the knife, that is.

Now, airlines, like other businesses in Canada, and even Canada Border Services Agency, are faced with staff shortages and challenges delivering full service as the quick-spreading Omicron virus variant strikes workers themselves or workers as close contacts.

WestJet Monday announced it would reduce its JAN schedule by 15 per cent, and the culprit is the Omicron variant.

The company’s VP of communications, Richard Bartrem, said Omicron has had a “major impact” on its staff, with a 35 per cent increase in cases recently. Nearly 200 employees are currently affected.

The 15 per cent schedule reduction works out to dozens of cancelled flights every day this month. “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,” he explained.

Other airlines have already said the writing’s on the wall for their staffing levels, too. The snowball effect the highly-contagious Omicron is having on already-stretched-to-the-limits operators and travel advisors looks like it’s going to keep travel recovery out in the cold for another winter.

Lynn Elmhirst

With a background in broadcast news and travel lifestyles TV production, Lynn is just as comfortable behind or in front of the camera as she is slinging words into compelling stories at her laptop. Having been called a multi-media ‘content charmer’, Lynn’s other claim to fame is the ability to work 24/7, forgoing sleep until the job is done. Documented proof exists in a picture of Lynn at the closing celebrations of an intense week, standing, champagne in hand - sound asleep. That’s our kind of gal.

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