JetBlue cancels hundreds of flights until mid-January and expects more ommicron sick calls

JetBlue Airways Airbus A320 passenger aircraft landing at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City.

Nik Oiko | Light Rocket | Getty Images

JetBlue Airways is suspending more than 1,280 flights from its schedule from Thursday through mid-January in anticipation of more Covid-19 infections among pilots and flight attendants.

New York-based JetBlue and other airlines, including United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines, have canceled more than 4,000 flights since Christmas Eve, grappling with inclement weather and an increase in crew sick leave.

“Last week was one of our most difficult operational periods during the pandemic,” three JetBlue division leaders wrote in a note to staff on Tuesday, which was seen by CNBC. “The exponential growth of Omicron cases in just a few days is at a level that no one could reasonably prepare for.”

They said the airline would cancel flights “to further advance the expected increase in Omicron cases”. The scheduled flight reductions are just under 10% of JetBlue’s daily schedules.

JetBlue canceled 173 flights on Thursday, or 17% of its schedule, while more than 1,000 flights were canceled nationwide.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday reduced the recommended isolation time from 10 to five days for individuals who have tested positive for Covid but are asymptomatic.

JetBlue had followed Delta last week by urging the CDC to halve isolation guidelines for breakthrough Covid cases to five days, and warned of staff shortages and flight disruptions as omicron spread rapidly. Other airlines followed.

JetBlue updated its time off policy following the CDC’s announcement so that staff can return to work if they are symptom-free after five days.

JetBlue’s department heads said in the staff note that they are hopeful the new guidelines would help reduce staff numbers more quickly, but added: “We know Omicron cases in the Northeast have yet to peak (and will.” only in a week or 2) where the vast majority of our crew members are based.”

The Association of Flight Attendants, the largest union of flight attendants in the US, had urged the CDC not to make the change, saying stronger protocols are needed, such as a negative test, to return to work. and 10 days of isolation for unvaccinated workers who test positive.

“We believe this is the wrong move for aviation, as it accepts that infectious people will be put back to work or will fly as passengers on our planes,” AFA International President Sara Nelson wrote to airline CEOs on Wednesday. “While our union did not and does not support the updated guidelines, we stand ready to work with airlines to implement the new rules in a way that protects workers and gives our passengers clarity and confidence.”

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