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Short staffed from omicron, airlines canceled some Christmas Eve flights last minute

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's been a chaotic day for many travelers hoping to see family or just get away for Christmas. Airlines canceled hundreds of U.S. flights at the last minute, and some blamed the omicron spike for leaving them short-staffed. NPR's Jennifer Ludden is covering this story. Hi, Jennifer.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Hi.

SHAPIRO: We've known about the omicron variant for several weeks. Were airlines just unable to prepare for all of the holiday travel?

LUDDEN: Well, you know, they tried. Some had offered employees incentive pay to work extra or not call in sick during this busy time. Today Delta said it had rerouted and switched out aircraft and crews, but it had exhausted all options to avoid cancellations. Delta, United and Lufthansa all said they just have too many crew members who've called in sick or are in isolation because of COVID-19. Now, this week, an industry group, the Airlines for America, asked the CDC to cut down that isolation period in half for fully vaccinated crew. They argue that it makes sense since the omicron variant seems to be milder with a shorter period of infection.

SHAPIRO: What have all these canceled flights meant for passengers?

LUDDEN: You know, some are getting rebooked pretty quickly. I spoke with Brianne Armstrong of San Antonio. She is now rescheduled to fly to the Dominican Republic tomorrow. She only saw the cancellation text from United at 2:30 this morning when she was getting ready to leave for her 6:15 a.m. flight. So it's been a long day for her. And she told me this is already her plan B. She was supposed to go to Amsterdam back in the fall, and she'd scrambled to postpone that. And she was changing it and finally canceled it because of increasing coronavirus restrictions in Amsterdam. And all this has made her rethink where we are in this pandemic. Coming up on two years into it, she says, look; it's not going away, and she thinks we need a new approach.

BRIANNE ARMSTRONG: How do we live with this? How do we plan for the future of this? And are we doing that, or are we simply being - are we being proactive, or are we being reactive to every time there's a new variant?

SHAPIRO: Well, Jennifer, airlines are hardly the only workplace facing disruption because of omicron, right?

LUDDEN: Absolutely. This variant - it's just highly transmissible, and it's infecting even fully vaccinated people. Scientists are expecting a massive spike in cases in coming weeks. And so, you know, this threatens to worsen existing staffing problems everywhere - you know, restaurants, stores, very importantly, hospitals, of course. And out of concern for that, the CDC just yesterday did shorten the isolation period for health care workers who have COVID-19. And that is specifically to let more of them get back to work sooner.

SHAPIRO: There was some other omicron-related travel news today. The Biden administration is lifting flight restrictions from eight countries in southern Africa. Why now?

LUDDEN: So remember; these were restrictions imposed last month when South Africa first reported this surge in the omicron variant, basically to warn the world, hey, this is coming. And the move was controversial. Some said, look; this isn't going to help much because omicron is probably already in the U.S. Today, administration officials said, yep, it is clear that is obviously the case now. It is also spreading within the U.S. And they said it's also clear that, you know, vaccines and especially boosters are effective against severe disease from omicron. So the U.S. says it will lift those flight restrictions against southern African countries on December 31.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Jennifer Ludden, thanks a lot.

LUDDEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.