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Experts: Sick crews mean fewer flights through at least end of March

Travelers wait for flights at Kennedy Airport on

Travelers wait for flights at Kennedy Airport on Christmas Eve, when fight cancellations began to spike as flight crews called out sick because of COVID-19.   Credit: Reece Wiliams

A shortage of healthy flight crews during the latest COVID-19 surge has forced pandemic-wary airlines to start canceling thousands of flights over the coming months just at metropolitan-area airports alone, according to industry experts.

Of roughly 246,000 flights that 11 major carriers planned would arrive or depart from Kennedy, LaGuardia, Long Island MacArthur and Newark-Liberty airports between Jan. 8 and March 31, 3.3%, or about 8,000 flights so far, are forecast to be chopped from the schedule, according to data provided by the airline data company Cirium.

For instance, American Airlines was planning to offer 249 flights between Long Island MacArthur and Philadelphia International Airport; the shrunken lineup leaves only 146 such flights — with 5,150 fewer seats, according to Cirium data. Delta was to fly from Kennedy Airport to San Francisco 450 times; there will be just 335 flights on that route, meaning 21,006 fewer seats, through the end of March.

For travelers, all the trims due to the staffing shortages, weak bookings and weather mean fewer flights to choose from, along with potentially higher airfares.

"If there were 10 flights going to Miami, there could now be three," said Jackie Tyree Kos, a travel agent with Altour of Woodbury.

Since last month, the coronavirus’ omicron variant has rippled through industry after industry, causing workforce shortages at airports, hospitals, retailers and schools, as workers — including some fully vaccinated — test positive for COVID-19 and must isolate for days.

In aviation, those shortages have led to the sort of disruptions last seen during the early months of the pandemic in spring 2020.

Every day since Christmas Eve, at least 6% of flights have been canceled at the four airports Long Islanders typically use to travel commercially, and on most days, it's even higher. On Jan. 3, for example, 536 flights were canceled, 16% of what was scheduled, according to data provided by the FlightAware.com, a flight-tracking website.

By comparison, the cancellation rate had been a fraction of a percent for months before the omicron uptick began late last year.

Across the United States, airlines have canceled more than 1,000 daily flights for 13 straight days, The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday.

At MacArthur, starting Dec. 28 and on every day since, the seven-day average number of flights taking off or landing has been lower compared to the year prior — and that was before coronavirus vaccination was widely available, and when travelers were more skittish. That average includes both commercial and private flights.

On Jan. 3, 2022, for example, the average was 78 flights, compared with the same date last year when it was 135 flights.

There's been a slight increase in staff out over the past few weeks, but service at MacArthur hasn't been affected, said Caroline Smith, a spokeswoman for Islip town, which runs the airport.

Airlines are cutting flights because of crews calling out ill and the expectation of fewer travelers in the weeks ahead, said Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research Group, a firm specializing in the travel industry.

"The airlines are reducing the flights because they anticipate demand being weaker, and they anticipate a certain number of their employees being sick, so they are canceling these flights in advance in order to have, hopefully, a number of pilots and flight attendants available on a reserve, or standby basis, to work, should the COVID illnesses continue to happen," he said.

Kennedy gained a small number of flights overall, with losses at each of the other three airports.

Harteveldt cautioned that even more flights could be canceled going forward.

"It doesn’t mean that, in the next few weeks, if airlines continue to have these problems with sick pilots and flight attendants, that they won’t be canceling more flights, or if demand drops off more than expected, airlines may also may cancel more flights than they already have done," he said.

But it’s not so simple just to add flights, at least not quickly — even if demand manages to pick up — due to how airline employees arrange their schedules, about a month out, and other industry logistics protocols, he said.

"You don’t just snap your fingers and magically have flights reappear. There’s a process that airlines have to go through: They have to make sure they’ve got enough crew available. They have to figure out aircraft availability, for example," he said, adding: "The airlines even have to think about the supply chain. They have to make sure that there would be adequate supplies of jet fuel at the airports they serve, that the airport catering companies they use will have the supplies they need, and so on."

Airlines might be able to add flights back in a process that could take two to three weeks, and the flights still need to be loaded into reservation systems with enough time for prospective passengers to see, and book, the flights.

And then there's testing.

When traveling to most foreign destinations nowadays, it’s not enough to clinch a plane ticket. There’s complying with a foreign country’s testing mandates, in place in some form or another in at least 142 nations, according to the travel website Sherpa.

So when seeking to head to destinations requiring a negative PCR test close to departure, you must find a local testing center with both an available appointment and the capacity to process the sample in time.

Helping with the hunt has fallen to travel agents, including Isabel Marques of Martins Travel Agency in Mineola, whose business focuses on trips to Portugal, Spain, and Central and South America.

Particularly since Christmas, finding a suitable test isn't easy: "It’s a nightmare, that’s all I can say," she described of the ordeal.

A major roadblock is the surge in infections, which has led to a spike in demand for diagnostic and screening testing, as Long Island and the rest of the state and country cope with too few testing supplies to meet higher demand.

"The problem is finding a lab that will do it for you, and then when you do find a lab that will do it for you, they charge you crazy amounts," she said, pointing to a service at Kennedy Airport that charges $200.

And as of Dec. 2, the Centers for Disease Control mandates proof of a negative test taken within a day of boarding a flight bound for the United States.

Which could mean an unexpected extension of your trip.

"If you’re going to do tourism, and all of a sudden you get tested positive," Marques said, "you’re not coming back to the U.S. until you test negative."

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