WestJet Airlines is cancelling about 68 flights a day as it faces a shortage of crews amid the global outbreak of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
The Calgary-based carrier will reduce its 450-flight daily schedule by 15 per cent until the end of January. The cuts affect cross-border, international and domestic routes, according to Morgan Bell, a WestJet spokesperson.
“We are struggling to find the staffing,” Ms. Bell said.
There are 181 WestJet employees infected with COVID-19 and an unknown number in quarantine, she added.
“We are making across-the board-changes, but doing our best to consolidate same-day frequencies and lower-demand markets, which would minimize the impact to our guests and enable us to better manage available crew,” Ms. Bell said.
WestJet said in a statement that customers can get refunds if their flights are changed by more than 90 minutes or have one or more stops added.
“We could not have anticipated the rapid and unpredictable impact of the Omicron variant on our people and operations, coupled with prolonged frigid temperatures across Western Canada and global staffing shortages,” the statement said. “Despite all contingency planning, in addition to hiring back thousands of WestJetters to safely support peak operations, we find ourselves no longer able to predictably resource our planned schedule due to Omicron impact.”
The federal government in mid-December renewed its global travel advisory, which urges Canadians not to leave the country for non-essential reasons. Those who go abroad risk becoming ill without access to the domestic health care system, and could face closed borders and cancelled flights, the government warned.
The advisory, issued ahead of the busy holiday travel period, left many Canadians facing tough choices: cancel long-awaited trips or risk having their holidays spoiled by the virus. In recent days, COVID-19 case numbers have soared across Canada, the United States and Europe, dampening demand for air travel and prompting airlines to slash their schedules.
Airlines in the U.S. have cancelled hundreds of flights each day for the past week because of staff shortages they have blamed on the spread of Omicron.
Air Canada on Thursday cancelled 76 of its 905 scheduled flights, including flights from Toronto to Chicago, Vancouver, Edmonton and Ottawa, according to aviation data company Cirium and Toronto Pearson Airport.
The airline said in an e-mail it has cancelled 4 per cent of its flights in the past week, mainly because of snow and cold in Western Canada and other hubs. It added that it has enough crews to fly its schedule, but staff shortages at companies that serve it have combined with winter conditions to affect operations.
Air Canada has already cut hundreds of flights scheduled for January, according to Cirium. The cancellations include domestic and international flights.
Airlines do not reveal sales information, and it is not known how many of the domestic cancellations are because of passengers changing their minds about travelling amid the resurgence of the virus.
Air Transat said it has not cancelled any flights to date because of Omicron-related staff shortages. The airline said it has reduced its schedule between Jan. 12 and Feb. 25, but declined to say by how many flights.
“Due to the rapid rise of the Omicron variant and the impact of the restrictive measures put in place by the federal government on Dec. 15, we have unfortunately been forced to revise our flight schedule on certain routes,” said Pierre Tessier, a spokesperson for the Montreal-based airline.
“As the situation evolves, we will determine if further adjustments will be necessary for the remainder of our winter program,” Mr. Tessier said. “We are contacting customers affected by these changes and offering them two options: accept a new itinerary or cancel their reservation and receive a refund.”
Porter Airlines spokesperson Brad Cicero said the carrier has had a “limited” number of flight cancellations over the past week. “There are a variety of reasons for the cancellations, including weather and aircraft maintenance, with a small number related to staffing,” Mr. Cicero said.
Flair Airlines said it had a “small number” of flight crews who were infected with COVID-19, but that it has not had to cancel any flights as a result. The airline cancelled four flights on Thursday because of weather.
“We expect that Omicron will influence the desire to travel in the coming weeks, and this is the biggest issue that we’re working with now,” said Matthew Kunz, Flair’s vice-president of operations.
The unions that represent flight attendants and pilots did not immediately respond to interview requests.
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