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United CEO Scott Kirby told employees in a memo Tuesday that the airline is reducing an unspecified number of flights in the near term to "make sure we have the staffing and resources to take care of our customers."
JetBlue and Alaska have already announced proactive flight cuts due to an unprecedented number of sick calls.
How bad is the staffing situation at United? Kirby said 3,000 of United's U.S. employees have tested positive for coronavirus and out of work. That's about 4.5% of the workforce at United, which was one of the first companies in the country to announce a vaccine mandate for workers.
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And for those caught up in the holiday travel mess from Christmas Eve through early January, Kirby detailed the virus's toll at one of its seven domestic hubs: Nearly one-third of United employees in Newark, New Jersey, called in sick in a single day during the holiday season, Kirby said. He did not say which day.
Kirby acknowledged the airline's challenges during the holidays in the memo:
Our frontline teams continue to put in a tremendous effort during what I know is an incredibly challenging and stressful time – the omicron surge has put a strain on our operation, resulting in customer disruptions during a busy holiday season. ..I appreciate your professionalism, creativity, and caring approach – it's really made all the difference in helping us manage the impact on our customers.
On Tuesday, United leads all major U.S. airlines with 149 flight cancellations, or 7% of scheduled flights, according to flight tracker FlightAware. That accounts for 20% of today's relatively light flight cancellations.
Southwest Airlines, which last week said it has started seeing an impact from the omicron variant sick calls and contact tracing, canceled 143 flights, or 4%.
Southwest Airlines' pilots union confirmed last week that it had 600 pilots out sick in one day earlier this month, half due to close contact with someone who was exposed.
In a memo to employees on Friday, Southwest said it has decided to end contact tracing and is shortening the isolation period for workers who test positive for coronavirus. Workers must now isolate five days instead of 10, in line with new CDC guidance. Delta Air Lines already reduced its isolation period after the CDC move, which it lobbied for ahead of the Christmas travel season as omicron variant cases spiked.
Steve Goldberg, Southwest's senior vice president of operations and hospitality, said the airline is adjusting its COVID-19 procedures and policies in part to "offer our customers reliable service."
"The national cases of COVID have sharply increased due to omicron, and we, like other companies, have seen an uptick among our workforce that makes contact tracing less effective and difficult to administer," Goldberg said in the memo.
Southwest said it is offering five days of isolation pay to employees who test positive for the virus, regardless of vaccination status.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: United flight cuts: CEO says 3,000 employees have COVID