An American Airlines plane is de-iced as strong winds blow in Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport Thursday 22 December 2022.
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U.S. flight cancellations eased somewhat on Saturday, but federal officials warned the disruptions could continue as severe winter storms impacted air travel across the country ahead of Christmas.
US airlines have canceled more than 10,000 flights since Wednesday, according to flight tracker FlightAware.
Bad weather and flight disruptions have upended the holiday travel plans of hundreds of thousands of people in one of the busiest times since the pandemic.
Airlines and travelers have struggled to find alternative flights ahead of the holidays as planes were so full and flight schedules were severely curtailed over the weekend. The Federal Aviation Administration said flight schedules peaked Thursday at 47,554 flights, falling to 30,875 on Saturday and just 27,997 on Sunday, Christmas Day.
That could force airlines to issue cash refunds to travelers who decide to cancel their journey altogether because of the delays.
FedEx Spirit UPS warned holiday packages could be delayed due to the storms.
Airlines scrubbed about 5,600 flights on Friday alone, about a quarter of the flight schedule, as storms swept through cities from the Pacific Northwest to the East Coast, bringing life-threatening cold to many areas. Federal forecasters warned of dangerous road conditions due to ice and poor visibility.
“Winds and blowing snow could cause delays in Chicago, and winds could cause delays in and around Washington, DC, New York, Boston and Philadelphia,” the FAA said Saturday morning. “Seattle, San Francisco and airports serving ski areas in Colorado may see delays from low cloud and visibility.”
More than 2,200 Saturday flights were canceled and 5,000 others were delayed.
Delays are also possible in Florida due to the high number of seasonal flights, the FAA added.
A jet taxi in the snow at O’Hare International Airport on December 22, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois.
Scott Olson | Getty Images
Extreme cold and high winds also slowed operations at dozens of airports. 58 percent of U.S. flights arrived on Friday with a delay averaging nearly 90 minutes, FlightAware data showed.
The disruptions were due to the weather hitting all major US airlines.
JetBlue Airways offered flight attendants triple pay to pick up rides on Saturday.
“Winter Storm Elliott has resulted in thousands of weather-related delays and cancellations across the country,” according to a JetBlue employee memo seen by CNBC. “There has also been an increased absenteeism rate from crew members, giving us a lot of open voyages today.”
JetBlue said it would also continue to include holiday pay for those flight attendants as part of their collective bargaining agreement.
Southwest Airlineswhich has major operations in Chicago and Denver, canceled more than 1,300 flights, about a third of its schedule, while 2,000 others, half of its schedule, were delayed.
The Southwest Airlines Pilot Association, the airline’s pilots’ union, said 52% of pilots were diverted Thursday.
SWAPA said ground operations managers in Denver on Thursday declared an “operational emergency” and required employees to produce medical certificates to call in sick.
Colorado Springs’ James Garofalo checks his cell phone following his flight cancellation at Denver International Airport in Denver, Colorado on Thursday, December 22, 2022.
Hyoung Chang | Denver Post | Getty Images
Based in Seattle Alaska Airlines canceled more than 500 flights, or 65% of its schedule, on Friday, and planes and airport ramps were covered in thick sheets of ice, slowing operations in the Pacific Northwest.
“While it is difficult, particularly at this time of year, we strongly encourage guests to reconsider their need to travel due to the continued frigid weather and limited availability,” it said on Friday. “Due to very busy flights over the next few days, it will likely take several days to accommodate guests who require new flights.”