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Airlines cancel more than 12,000 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 on Sunday but federal officials warned that disruptions could continue after severe winter storms and bitter cold upended air travel across the country ahead of Christmas.

U.S. airlines have canceled more than 12,000 flights from Wednesday through Saturday, about 14% of their schedule, according to flight tracker FlightAware.

The bad weather and resulting flight disruptions upended the holiday of hundreds of thousands of people during what airlines expect to be one of the busiest periods since before the pandemic. In addition to delays, customers complained on social media about missing luggage.

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.

Airlines are required to provide cash refunds to travelers who decide to scrap their trips altogether if carriers cancel their flights.

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.

Southwest Airlines was hit hard by the weather, canceling about a quarter of its flights from Wednesday through Saturday, according to FlightAware.

Southwest’s COO Andrew Watterson outlined a host of challenges in a staff note on Saturday, including: unexpected fog in San Diego, a staffing shortage at its fuel vendor in Denver and additional overnighting aircraft at its Dallas Love Field Airport, planes positioned there to relieve staff in other cities grappling with frigid temperatures.

Southwest decided to cancel more flights on Christmas Eve because crews and planes were out of position for their assignments or due for federally required rest, Watterson said.

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

SWAPA also 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.

Southwest offered flight attendants extra pay and apologized to those crews for the chaotic holiday period when they encountered long hold times with crew scheduling services.

“I don’t have an apology big enough to change what you’ve experienced already,” Sonya Lacore, vice president of inflight operations, wrote in a staff memo that was reviewed by CNBC. “This storm is unlike anything we’ve experienced in decades, and our Crew Scheduling tools simply aren’t set up for a storm of this size.

“Storms like this are difficult at any time of year, but I’m especially sorry it has impacted your holidays or time off with friends and family,” she added.

More than 3,400 U.S. flights were canceled on Saturday and 1,500 on Sunday. Over 10,000 were delayed on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

“Wind could cause delays in and around New York, Boston and Philadelphia. Seattle and San Francisco could see delays from low clouds and visibility, while wind and snow could lead to delays in Detroit, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Buffalo,” the FAA said Sunday morning.

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

Scott Olson | Getty Images

All major U.S. airlines’ operations were hit by the storms and severe weather.

Extreme cold and high winds slowed ground operations at dozens of airports. More than half of U.S.-based airlines’ flights arrived late from Thursday through Saturday, with delays averaging 81 minutes, according to FlightAware.

“Temperatures have fallen so low that our equipment and infrastructure have been impacted, from frozen lav systems and fuel hoses to broken tow bars,” said a United Airlines message to pilots on Saturday. “Pilots have encountered frozen locks when trying to re-enter the jet bridge after conducting walk arounds.”

The FAA said it had to evacuate its tower at United hub Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey because of a leak on Saturday.

JetBlue Airways offered flight attendants triple pay to pick up trips on Saturday during a shortage of crews.

“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.”

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

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.”

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