News·6 min read

Stranded at the Airport: Why You Keep Hearing About Flights Getting Canceled

Airline passengers check flight status amid cancellations.
Image: Getty Images | Design: theSkimm
January 10, 2022

There’s nothing like a little getaway...unless you’re dealing with canceled flights and can’t get to your destination. What started as a nightmare for travelers last year has become a regular inconvenience for passengers. Many airlines — including United, Southwest, American, and JetBlue — have been repeatedly canceling. Leaving many to wonder why there’ve been so many issues recently. And what will happen when it’s time for them to hit the runway in the future.

Why Airlines Have Been Struggling

In 2020, airline passenger traffic in the US fell 60%. And companies were forced to furlough or lay off tens of thousands of employees. In 2021, the airline industry continued to take some big Ls — especially with the spread of Omicron.

  • During summer 2021, Spirit Airlines frustrated travelers when it canceled more than 2,800 flights over 11 days. The move cost the budget airline $50 million in revenue. Around the same time, Southwest canceled hundreds of flights too. And said they’d schedule fewer flights in the coming months to prevent this issue from happening again.

  • In the fall, Southwest was back in the hot (plane) seat. It canceled more than 2,000 flights in one weekend. And later that month, American Airlines did the same thing — scrapping more than 1,700 flights during Halloween weekend. That includes more than 800 in one day alone — equivalent to 30% of its schedule for that day.

  • The trend continued over Christmas weekend when more than 3,800 flights were canceled worldwide. On Dec. 26 alone, US airlines canceled more than 1,300 trips. And thousands more were delayed. The problem spanned around the globe, with German, Australian, and Chinese airlines also scaling back because of COVID-19.

Airlines have pointed to bad weather for some of the surprise cancellations. But labor shortages and the Omicron variant are proving to be the main issues. And the problems have persisted throughout the holiday season into 2022: From Dec. 25 to Jan. 5, US airlines canceled at least 1,000 flights every day — for 11 days straight. Causing one of the biggest disruptions in air travel since the pandemic began.

  • Hiring’s been tough: Companies have been trying to hire pilots, flight attendants, and other workers to avoid this issue in the future. But for now, union reps for airline workers say they’re understaffed and overworked. Some airlines are offering incentives to pick up the slack. Southwest said it’ll pay employees double for picking up extra shifts. In addition, employees are dealing with a rise in unruly passengers. Including some who have been charged with assaulting flight attendants. Oftentimes over the mask mandate on public transportation. 

  • Omicron isn’t helping: The COVID-19 variant accounts for more than 95% of cases in the US. Researchers are still learning about Omicron, but we know it’s highly transmissible — regardless of vaccination status. Note: vaccinated people have experienced milder symptoms, oftentimes avoiding hospitalization. But it’s still hurting airlines that are already struggling with staffing shortages.

How Airline Issues Have Affected Customers

Some travelers changed their holiday plans. And opted to stay put because of rising COVID-19 case numbers. While others did the opposite. And flew during some of the busiest travel days of the year. A choice that left many stranded at the airport for the holidays. 

Airline reps floated a solution to solve staff shortages to the CDC. And asked the agency to decrease the quarantine period for fully vaccinated staff who contract COVID-19. Many question how long a fully vaccinated person is contagious after infection. There is no data confirming a de facto timeline either.

On Dec. 27, airlines got their wish. And the CDC decreased the recommended quarantine time for all vaccinated individuals. Now, any fully vaccinated person who tests positive for COVID-19 can end their quarantine on day five. As long as they are fever-free and not displaying symptoms.

The CDC also updated the quarantine time for those exposed to the virus. Now, unvaccinated and fully vaccinated people who are not boosted should quarantine for five days after exposure. But they must wear masks routinely for an additional five days.

What To Do If You Run Into Travel Trouble

Traveling in itself can be stressful. Flight delays, cancellations, or other issues could cause even more turbulence. Here are some tips for a smooth trip…

  • Be prepared. (Sorry if the “Lion King” song is now stuck in your head.) Make sure you have everything you need: Your license and/or passport, a negative COVID-19 test or vaccine card (depending on where you’re going), your boarding pass (if you can access it in advance), and any other crucial items. Also, some experts say to only pack a carry-on bag if you can. That’ll help you avoid lengthy check-in or baggage-drop lines. It’ll also help you avoid potentially losing your suitcase if your original flight gets canceled at the last minute.

  • Stay alert. Continue to check on the status of your flight before you head to the airport and while you’re there. You can download the airline’s app or a third-party app (like FlightAware or FlightStats) to check as well. You should be able to sign up for push, text or phone notifications for alerts on your flight’s info. This detail is especially key for those with a connecting flight.

  • Act fast. If your flight is canceled, call your airline or talk with a gate agent or customer service rep at the airport. And ask about your options. You also may be able to rebook a flight using the airline’s app. 

    • Heads up: If you book a flight through an online travel company like Expedia, you might have to reach out to them to deal with itinerary changes. And be prepared to be on hold if calling is your only option. Alaska Airlines said they had hold times of up to 11 hours during the holiday season. 

  • Know your rights. Flight issues might make a lot of Qs pop in your head: Can I get on the next flight out? Am I eligible for a refund or other compensation? Will the airline put me up in a hotel? Remember: The US Dept. of Transportation requires airlines to offer a refund if they cancel a flight. Check out their website for details on refunds for canceled/delayed flights. Plus, airlines have different policies when it comes to accommodating passengers in these situations. So make sure you know their policies too.

  • Consider travel insurance. What’s covered varies by provider and policy. But basic travel insurance usually covers at least partial refunds for a number of things. Like cancellations or interruptions because you’re injured or sick, meals or hotels required if your flight changes for certain reasons, or damaged or lost property. We Skimm’d everything you need to know about travel insurance here.


The pandemic is (once again) ruining travel plans. And flight cancellations and delays likely aren’t going away anytime soon. If you’re planning to travel, being prepared for disruptive bumps in the road may lead to less headaches down the line.

Updated on Jan. 10 with continuing Omicron-related flight cancellations. Updated on Dec. 28 to reflect new CDC quarantine guidelines for vaccinated individuals.

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