Stock - Dubai airport Terminal 3 A Gate
All set for the New Year action - Dubai International expects a 2 million turnout between now and January 10. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: The UAE and Gulf airlines will not go in for the mass cancellations that have impacted US holiday travel schedules after the Omicron infection surges.

“The situation in the Middle East is a lot less acute in terms of widespread infection numbers than it in the US - so the underlying risk is a lot less anyway,” said Sean Mendis, an aviation consultant. “That said, some carriers like Etihad have implemented short-term additional measures to reduce the risk of crew being exposed at home and thus ensure adequate crewing resources for their flights.” Etihad Airways did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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What happened in the US?

Thousands of flights are getting cancelled as US airlines grapple with staff shortages. Over 2,500 flights were cancelled worldwide on Thursday, of which 1,031 flights involved the US, according to Flightaware, a tracking website.

The US has been at the centre of airlines’ latest crisis, and it may not just be a simple case of staff shortages as most believe it to be. “At US airlines, it was not a staff shortage, but a staff unavailability that caused the problem, which was, in turn caused by so many of the staff being pinged for close contacts to Omicron carriers,” said Andrew Charlton, an independent aviation analyst.

“They needed to isolate and causing the shortages – at a time when the requirement was for more crews. “Could it happen in the Gulf? That depends on how strictly crews are isolated and the settings the government takes for casual contact and so on.”

Way forward

US airlines are urging the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is the government agency setting the health and safety protocols, to relax some restrictions and let staff return to work. “The airlines have pushed for this to be revised to five days, and that will relieve a lot of pressure on them as a number of crew will be released to operate as a result,” said Mendis.

As per current norms, crew who have been possibly exposed to a positive case have to be removed from rosters and isolated for 10 days even if they tested negative. “Every airline has to deal with the risk of exposure and crew shortages as a result of that,” said Mendis.

“The only real way to minimise this is better education of the crew of the risks of various activities and incentivise them to follow the appropriate protocols. This reduces the overall risk to themselves and fellow crew members.”

Holiday season

The cancellations, which began on Christmas eve, are showing no signs of slowing with the New Year weekend approaching. For the airline industry, expected to lose over $50 billion this year due to the pandemic, this is another huge setback. In the US, top airline CEOs told a Senate panel that a tight labor market and difficulty convincing some workers to pick up shifts had resulted in flight cancellations this year.

If the problems persist, it is an opportunity lost for airlines during the aviation industry’s busiest two weeks. Dubai, home to the world’s busiest international airport, expects to see around 2 million passengers pass through the terminals between December 29 and January 8.