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Canceled flights put a damper on Christmas celebrations for thousands of travelers

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Many people who went ahead with family gatherings this month found they had trouble getting there. Airlines have canceled many flights, blaming winter storms and the omicron variant.

We called reporter Leslie Josephs of CNBC and asked how things look today.

LESLIE JOSEPHS: It's looking a little bit better than it did over the weekend. We had over 2,000 cancellations since Christmas Eve, which is, of course, not welcome news to a lot of people traveling. But it is getting a little bit better. Anyone traveling should frequently check in with their airlines, make sure that their flight is taking off - because these things tend to cascade. You get one crew down with omicron, and it can cascade through the rest of the ranks.

INSKEEP: I did hear from somebody the other day about a canceled flight, and they got the word more than a day in advance - plenty of time not to arrive at the airport to terrible news. Is that the standard now?

JOSEPHS: Yeah, that's what airlines like to do. Sometimes you'll see this with a hurricane or a blizzard or some kind of issue that they can see far in advance. They don't want people crowding the airports and having to overwhelm their gate agents, ticket agents and so forth. It's not, you know, what they used to do in the '90s. Now a lot of us - most of us have smartphones. They want to let people know as soon as possible, so they don't have those issues at the airport.

INSKEEP: You know, when I first started hearing about these cancellations, it seemed fairly simple to me. There have been more positive tests among airline crews, and so they don't have enough people, and so flights get canceled. But is it really that simple? Is that what's going on here?

JOSEPHS: Well, I mean, omicron is - the cases are going up. We've seen, you know, every industry, from Broadway to restaurants, get hit with this and having staffing issues there. And it is an issue for airline crews. I mean, they're not immune. They're largely vaccinated. Airlines are pushing the CDC to maybe lower the quarantine guidance for breakthrough COVID cases now to five days from 10 because that sidelines crews for a long time. And this is supposed to be among some of the busiest days that they've had since the pandemic began. So they want to get every dollar possible.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about trying to get every dollar possible. I think you've done some reporting on this. Americans will be aware that the U.S. government bailed out the airlines at the beginning of the pandemic. They've received tens of billions of dollars in subsidies. And the idea of those subsidies, like many subsidies across the broader economy, was that airlines should keep people employed. Airlines should keep people on the payroll. You would think that if they were keeping people on the payroll all this time, they would then be available in an emergency like this. But that doesn't seem to be what the airlines have done.

JOSEPHS: Well, they were not allowed to lay anybody off for taking that more than $50 billion in taxpayer payroll money. But what they did do is encourage a lot of employees to take buyouts. So they had lost tens of thousands of workers through those voluntary measures, leaves of absence. And then once the vaccination wave came around in the spring and summer and people started traveling again, airlines had a lot of trouble ramping up. And some of their schedules were too ambitious. And we saw cancellations. Usually, it's one airline at a time having some issue. Now what we're seeing is many dealing with omicron. But they're staffing up as quickly as possible, of course - dealing with the same tight labor market that lots of industries are.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute, did they spend the federal subsidies to buy employees out instead of keeping them employed?

JOSEPHS: They used it for payroll. So the large majority - employees were kept on the payroll. But they did take some hits for buyout packages and so forth. And now they're trying to hire back. They're hiring pilots as quickly as they can - sometimes offering pretty rich signing bonuses so they can have pilots and not have the issue that they're having now. But they're a bit behind still.

INSKEEP: Leslie Josephs of CNBC - thanks so much.

JOSEPHS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.