Holiday chaos as Covid cases surge, more flights scrapped

Around 11,000 flights scrapped worldwide since Friday as Covid-19 cases surge to record levels in Europe and half a dozen US states


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Travellers check-in at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. — AFP
Travellers check-in at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. — AFP

Published: Mon 27 Dec 2021, 10:49 PM

Global travel chaos that convulsed the Christmas weekend spilled into Monday with major flight cancellations impacting millions returning from holiday break, as Covid-19 cases surge to record levels in Europe and half a dozen US states.

Some 11,000 flights have been scrapped worldwide since Friday, and tens of thousands more delayed, during one of the year’s busiest travel periods — with multiple airlines saying spikes in cases of the Omicron variant have caused staffing shortages.

Effects rippled worldwide, with about 2,500 flights already cancelled on Monday and 800 more on Tuesday, according to flight tracker FlightAware.

The highly transmissible Omicron strain has sent cases skyrocketing, once again disrupting lives and a global economy battered by almost two years of the pandemic — with England’s Premier League the latest to announce that a record 103 players and staff had tested positive in the past week.

Governments worldwide are scrambling to boost vaccination — stressing that the overwhelming majority of hospitalisations and deaths are occurring among the unvaccinated.


But in the United States, cases are already on track to reach record highs in January, fuelled by large pockets of unvaccinated residents as well as lack of access to quick and easy testing.

President Joe Biden said on Monday some US hospitals could be “overrun,” but that the country is generally well prepared to meet the latest surge and Americans needn’t “panic”.

In a virtual meeting hosted by the White House with a couple dozen state governors and top health advisors, Biden stressed that the rapid spread of the Omicron variant would not have the same impact as the initial outbreak of Covid-19 a year ago or the Delta surge this year.

“Omicron is a source of concern, but it should not be a source of panic,” he said.

US states including Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York, as well as the island territory of Puerto Rico, have reported more coronavirus cases in the past seven days than at any other point in the pandemic, according to data compiled by The New York Times.

“Clearly we’re on a vertical climb right up,” top White House pandemic advisor Anthony Fauci told National Public Radio on Monday, addressing the Times data.

Nationwide, the United States is closing in on the daily high of 250,000 cases recorded last January in the world’s most affected nation, which has lost more than 816,000 people to the pandemic.

New York’s health department said Covid paediatric hospitalisations have risen four-fold over the past two weeks as Omicron took hold.

In Florida — a global hub for the cruise industry, where new cases quadrupled in the week to December 23 — authorities are monitoring dozens of ships after at least two vessels recorded Covid outbreaks.

Brenda Hammer, who was set to board the Odyssey of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, told AFP: “I’m a little nervous about it. I wasn’t sure I still wanted to come.”

Earlier this week, 55 people on the ship tested positive for Covid, despite 95 per cent of people on board being vaccinated, the company said.

Thousands of the weekend’s flight cancellations were linked to Chinese carriers, many of them going in and out of Xi’an, where authorities are scrambling to contain the country’s worst Covid outbreak in 21 months.

Desperate to keep a lid on the pandemic before February’s Beijing Winter Olympics, China has stuck to a “zero-Covid” strategy, involving tight border restrictions, lengthy quarantines and targeted lockdowns. But there have been sporadic flare-ups.

Some 13 million residents are already confined to their homes in Xi’an, where Covid controls were tightened on Monday to the “strictest” level, banning residents from driving.

Two other Chinese cities also reported a case linked to Xi’an, as authorities urged migrant workers not to travel home in the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday.

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