United Airlines cancels flights after 3,000 employees test positive for Covid

United CEO Scott Kirby says the airline is ‘reducing our near-term schedules to make sure we have the staffing and resources to take care of customers’

Nathan Place
New York
Wednesday 12 January 2022 19:18 GMT
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United Airlines planes sit on the runway at Newark Liberty International Airport
United Airlines planes sit on the runway at Newark Liberty International Airport (Getty Images)
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United Airlines is canceling more flights after thousands of the company’s workers called out sick with the coronavirus.

According to a memo from the airline’s CEO, Scott Kirby, about 3,000 UA employees have recently tested positive for Covid-19, including almost a third of the workers at Newark Liberty International Airport – an important entryway to New York City.

“The Omicron surge has put a strain on our operation, resulting in customer disruptions during a busy holiday season,” Mr Kirby wrote. As a result, he said, flights would have to be cut.

“While we go to great lengths to avoid canceling flights, we worked to get ahead of the impact by acting early to cancel flights when necessary and notifying impacted customers in advance of them coming to the airport,” the CEO said. “We’re also reducing our near-term schedules to make sure we have the staffing and resources to take care of customers.”

Covid infections have been skyrocketing in the United States, where more than 760,000 cases are currently being reported per day. Studies have shown that the highly contagious new Omicron variant, which is driving the surge, causes fewer deaths and hospitalisations than previous strains – but workers still have to stay home if they test positive.

Hence the labour shortage at United, and at other airlines. Delta Air Lines has complained of “significant disruptions” due to Omicron, and JetBlue has said it’s coping with “record-breaking sick calls”.

The result has been a wave of cancellations. Since Christmas, more than 29,000 US flights have been canceled across the industry, according to The New York Times. Stormy winter weather has also led to trips being cut or delayed.

In addition to the disruptions for customers, Mr Kirby noted in his memo that “Omicron has affected the personal well-being of our United team.”

“To those who are out sick or isolating, we wish you a speedy recovery,” the CEO said.

The “good news”, he said, was that United’s vaccine mandate is working. Even as thousands of the airline’s workers tested positive for Covid, the CEO said, none of them are currently hospitalised, and none have died of the virus in the last eight weeks.

“In dealing with COVID, zero is the word that matters – zero deaths and zero hospitalisations for vaccinated employees,” Mr Kirby wrote. “And while I know that some people still disagree with our policy, United is proving that requiring the vaccine is the right thing to do because it saves lives.”

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