Rohit Tejwani was mid-air Friday on his way to a layover in Salt Lake City when he learned he wouldn’t make it to his parents’ place by Christmas morning.
The 34-year-old physician’s connecting flight to Seattle was one of hundreds canceled by U.S. airlines over Christmas weekend. Tejwani had been looking forward to spending Christmas Day with his parents; it was the first time he had the day off in four years, and this holiday was particularly special because his mom just completed cancer treatment.
Instead, he spent the night alone in Utah.
“I can’t think of anyone who wants to spend Christmas alone in an airport hotel in some random city,” he said. “It’s just super frustrating. … There’s no real good way to get that time back with people’s families, especially around a holiday like this.”
Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, JetBlue Airways and American Airlines canceled more than 750 flights combined on Christmas Day, and cancellations are set to drag on through Sunday, upending plans during one of the busiest travel periods of the year.
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Hundreds of Christmas flights canceled As of 5:45 p.m. ET Saturday, according to flight tracker FlightAware:
Delta has canceled more than 300 Christmas Day flights, or about 15% of scheduled flights, as well as more than 80 Sunday flights.United has so far canceled 240 Saturday flights – 12% of scheduled flights – and more than 70 Sunday flights. JetBlue canceled 125 Saturday flights.American canceled more than 90 Saturday flights.Sunday cancellation rates remained low at JetBlue and American as of Saturday afternoon.
All four airlines said omicron cases among staff were driving cancellations.
“A combination of issues, including but not limited to inclement weather in some areas of the country and the impact of the omicron variant, are driving cancellations and potential delays,” reads a Delta statement shared with USA TODAY Saturday.
Delta expects more than 300 of its flights will be canceled on Sunday.
JetBlue spokesperson Derek Dombrowski said the airline has seen an “increasing number” of sick calls due to the fast-spreading omicron variant, despite entering the holiday season with the highest staffing levels since the start of the pandemic.
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“(We) are using all resources available to us to cover our staffing needs,” Dombrowski said. “The health and safety of our crewmembers and customers remains our top priority as we work through this pandemic, and we sincerely apologize for the inconvenience that these schedule changes bring during the holidays.”
He warned that additional flight cancellations and other delays “remain a possibility” as omicron continues to spread.
American Airlines spokesperson Derek Walls said the company was “working hard” to rebook customers quickly.
United spokesperson Maddie King said the airline was also working to rebook as many people as possible “and get them on their way for the holidays.”
‘I just want to hug my grandparents’But for some travelers, rebooking efforts have done little to ease their anxieties over missing the holidays with their families.
Tanika Smith-Brooks planned to fly from Florida to North Carolina with her dogs Friday afternoon to visit her grandmother, the first time the two would have been together since April. But her flight was canceled, and Smith-Brooks was unable to find another that would allow her to bring her dogs in the cabin despite spending hours trying to get through the customer support phone line.
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Smith-Brooks said she’s had to explain to her grandmother, who has dementia, multiple times that she’s not able to come home this Christmas this year.
“It’s not just another day. The most important part of Christmas is being with your family,” she said. “My grandmother raised me because my mom died when I was five, so we’re extremely close. … I just want to hug my grandparents.”
Follow USA TODAY reporter Bailey Schulz on Twitter: @bailey_schulz.