Laura Leonard was thrilled to get time off work to visit her mother in Connecticut over the holidays.
The trip was supposed to be quick, just four days during New Year's weekend, but after months on the front lines of the pandemic as a case worker at a Chicago-area hospital, she was eager for a break. Then, 90 minutes before her scheduled Jan. 3 departure back home, Southwest Airlines canceled the flight.
It cost nearly $500 to get back to Chicago - two days later and on another airline. During the mad scramble to return home, she considered renting a car and driving 900 miles. The $680 price tag was just too much.
Like thousands of passengers who planned holiday trips, Leonard became caught in an epic travel meltdown in its third week that has forced the cancellation of more than 28,000 flights since the first signs of trouble on Christmas Eve, according to flight-tracking website FlightAware. What began as a pandemic-related challenge quickly snowballed into a multitiered test - coupling the uncertainties of omicron with the more familiar headache of winter weather.
"I just wanted my time off. I wanted to enjoy it," Leonard said. "But this is - it's upsetting and I don't know. I've never gone through anything like this and I am just so bummed."
Surge in daily flight cancellations
The disruption for airlines and travelers is on track to become the most severe since more than 56,000 flights were canceled in a single week at the outset of the pandemic, when people didn't want to fly. A triple whammy of robust demand for holiday travel, staffing shortages triggered by a surge in coronavirus cases and bouts of wintry weather at airline hubs has ushered in one of the worst periods for air travelers in years.
More than two weeks later, the surge in daily flight cancellations has shown no signs of abating: Some airlines have announced schedule cuts through the end of the month as they fight to recover.
The ferocious speed with which the omicron variant has spread took the nation by surprise, but there's some evidence airlines could have been better prepared. Flight cancellation data shows one carrier, American Airlines, has seen significantly less disruption than others, a record it attributes to changes made during a lengthy ramping-up process that included its own meltdowns last year.
While the number of scrubbed flights has been the biggest obstacle for travelers, it's not the only disruption. About one-third of flights nationwide that have taken off in the past two weeks have been late, with the average delay topping 50 minutes on some days, according to FlightAware.
Then there are the hundreds of suitcases and bags still to be claimed at airports - some that didn't follow passengers onto connecting flights; others that were lost when passengers were rerouted through different airports after their original flights were canceled. At Reagan National Airport, an American Airlines hub where more than 85% of flights were canceled Monday, baggage claim was filled with unclaimed bags.
American said in a statement that "residual winter storm impacts, icy roads and aircraft deicing conditions inhibited our recovery efforts," adding that it is working to reunite passengers with their luggage.
Olivia Graham considered herself fortunate: her American Airlines flight landed Dec. 22 in Columbus, Ga., with no problem, but her luggage didn't. More than two weeks later, she doesn't know where her suitcase is. It was last spotted in Charlotte.
"They say they're looking but with no progress after two weeks," Graham said. "I just don't know what to do."
American said it is looking into the whereabouts of Graham's bag.
Unlikely to have a lasting effect
Despite the protracted spell of chaos, industry watchers say a meltdown that left fuming travelers stranded at airports is unlikely to have a lasting effect on airlines' recovery from the pandemic. They say the same dynamics that have pushed demand for travel to near pre-pandemic levels in recent months will continue well into the new year.
"There remains tremendous pent-up demand for air travel, be it leisure, long-haul international or business, which will fill seats, driving our positive industry outlook," Jonathan Root, a senior vice president at Moody's Investors Service, wrote in a report this month.
Helane Becker, an airlines analyst at financial firm Cowen, said while the course of the pandemic is hard to predict and new variants could pose fresh challenges, people are ready to move beyond the pandemic.
"People have had it with covid," she said. "They're sick of hearing about it. They're sick of talking about it."
For many, that will manifest itself in more travel.
Since the start of the pandemic, about 50,000 airline employees have left the industry through retirements or voluntary buyouts. When passenger demand began ramping up last spring, airlines scrambled to bring back workers. But a tight job market made recruiting more difficult, and gaps remain even as thousands of new employees have been hired.
Becker said the ability of airlines to stabilize service and continue adding capacity will be dictated by their ability to shore up staffing levels.
FlightAware data shows that while recent disruptions have been severe - exacerbated by the unknowns of the omicron variant - bad weather has caused comparable problems for airlines in the past decade. In February last year, when Texas was in a deep freeze, airlines recorded 16,000 cancellations in one week. The week Hurricane Sandy struck in October 2012 saw almost 20,000 canceled flights. Winter storms in January 2011 prompted 19,000 cancellations.
Even so, it's of little solace to those caught in the chaos.
After visiting family in Maryland for Christmas, Zari Warden, 18, was ready to return to Seattle for the new college semester. But when she woke up Dec. 28, she learned her flight on Alaska Airlines was canceled as the carrier grappled with lingering effects of a snowstorm two days earlier.
"We already figured that the flight was going to be canceled because so many other flights had been canceled," Warden said. "It wasn't a surprise - it was just trying to figure out how to go from there."
Warden's father called the airline but couldn't get through to an employee - a common refrain from stranded travelers. After three days, they gave up and bought a ticket for a Jan. 4 flight on United Airlines.
That flight was delayed an hour because baggage crews were shorthanded amid a coronavirus outbreak, but Warden made it home at last.
Holiday travel trouble
The first inkling of holiday travel trouble was a Dec. 21 letter from Delta Air Lines Chief Executive Ed Bastian, who asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to cut its recommended isolation time after airline employees test positive for the coronavirus. Over the next few days, several airlines announced cancellations because of rising cases among their workforces as the omicron variant began to surge.
Delta, United and JetBlue Airways were among those that canceled flights on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Then came the weather. The day after Christmas, a storm socked Seattle with more snow in a single day than in all of 2020. It crippled the operations of Alaska Airlines, which is headquartered in the city.
In the days that followed, bad weather hit the Upper Midwest as airlines scrambled to staff flights and keep enough workers critical to other functions, such as handling baggage.
FlightAware cancellation data illustrates how in the days that followed, individual airlines suffered at different times over the weeks as storms hit various parts of the country.
Southwest rode out the first several days of industry disruptions with minor effects, only to scrub about 2,000 flights in the first four days of 2022 as snow rolled through its hubs in Chicago, Denver and Baltimore. Southwest has extended a program that offers bonus pay to employees through Jan. 25.
"Our focus is to stabilize the operation as we work through winter storms, while navigating the national COVID-19 spike to maintain sufficient staffing, so that we can offer a more reliable schedule as soon as possible," said Southwest spokesman Brian Parrish.
Alaska Airlines, still struggling in the aftermath of the December storm, first urged customers to defer travel through Jan. 2, then announced it would cut its schedule by 10 percent through January to get back on it feet.
"We're at our best when we are safe, reliable and caring," Alaska said in a statement. "And right now, we need to build more reliability back into our operation as we deal with the impacts of omicron and during a time when guests generally fly less."
One carrier has suffered consistently since late December: SkyWest Airlines has canceled more than 4,000 flights, according to FlightAware. The airline runs shorter routes for major airlines on smaller planes.
Becker said larger carriers tend to cancel their smaller regional flights more quickly because it's less disruptive. Regional airlines also tend to operate in more challenging areas with less support for remedies like de-icing.
In a statement, SkyWest said it had faced the combined effects of coronavirus cases, quarantined employees and bad weather.
"Given the ongoing surge in COVID cases and related sick calls, we've been working with each of our major partners to proactively reduce our January schedules for the remainder of the month to ensure we're able to adequately staff our remaining flying as we work to recover in the coming weeks," the company said.
Becker said the different experiences reflect varying strategies in the industry over the holiday period. American and Southwest faced high-profile meltdowns earlier in 2021 and Becker said they adopted a more conservative approach afterward.
One major carrier has ridden out the past two weeks with minimal disruptions. American Airlines has only canceled about 3 percent of its flights since Christmas - far fewer than its competitors, according to FlightAware.
David Seymour, American's chief operating officer, attributed the lower numbers to work that began as the carrier sought to rebound from the first year of the pandemic. That effort hit hurdles early on - with American facing waves of cancellations in June and October - but Seymour said the airline recruited staff, brought back those who were on leave and offered incentives to employees who agreed to work extra hours.
Seymour said American built a December schedule it could adequately staff. The airline couldn't predict the rise of the omicron variant, but had built in a buffer in case of the unexpected, Seymour said.
Still, several American customers said that while their flights operated as scheduled, they ran into other difficulties the carrier still has yet to resolve.
Nikki Mckenzie, of Los Angeles, said the airline bungled the reservation she and her husband had booked in Ecuador, charged a fee to rebook it, then lost their luggage, forcing them to spend a week with only what they packed in their carry-ons.
"You feel like you're screaming into a void and no one cares," she said of attempts to reach customer service employees. Late Friday, after inquiries from The Washington Post, American said it found Mckenzie's suitcase and made arrangements to have it delivered.
Seymour said the airline is expecting a strong summer with rising demand for travel. But as recent weeks have shown, he said, the pandemic could present surprises.
"What the country feels, we're going to feel," he said.
Henry Harteveldt, an aviation analyst with Atmosphere Research Group, said airlines are hoping the country moves beyond the worst of omicron by the middle of February.
"Airlines want to be ready to capitalize and be ready for what I suspect will be a very, very strong spring and summer travel season," he said.