In a single day over the holidays, nearly one in three United Airlines employees called in sick at Newark Liberty International Airport, a major hub for the airline, the company’s chief executive said on Tuesday.
The revelation, which came in a memo to staff from the airline’s chief executive, Scott Kirby, helps explain why U.S. airlines have had to cancel more than more than 27,000 flights, or about 8 percent of all scheduled trips, over two weeks starting the day before Christmas, according to FlightAware, a data tracking service. Employees calling in sick and storms that delivered strong winds, rains and in some cases record snowfall at airports nationwide wreaked havoc on United and other companies and stranded many travelers.
Overall, about 3,000 United Airlines employees — more than 4 percent of its work force — have recently tested positive for the coronavirus, Mr. Kirby said in his memo. The vast majority are not working, and United is cutting its flight schedule to manage the shortage.
“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,” he said.
In the two-week period starting just before Christmas, United canceled more than 2,500 flights. SkyWest Airlines, which operates shorter flights for major carriers including United, canceled more than 4,600 trips over that period, more than any other airline. Southwest Airlines was close behind with more than 4,000 flights.
United was one of the first major companies in the United States to impose a vaccine mandate, with nearly all of its workers now vaccinated. Mr. Kirby said that the policy was working.
No vaccinated employees are hospitalized and the hospitalization rate among United employees since the mandate went into effect in the fall has been far lower than that of the general population, he said. Before the requirement, more than one United employee died each week from the virus, on average, Mr. Kirby said. The airline has gone eight weeks without a single virus-related death among vaccinated employees.
“In dealing with Covid, zero is the word that matters — zero deaths and zero hospitalizations for vaccinated employees,” he said. “And while I know that some people still disagree with our policy, United is proving that requiring the vaccine is the right thing to do because it saves lives.”
The flight cancellations have continued into this week as airlines preemptively adjust schedules to manage fallout from the holiday disruptions and staffing problems, though the number has fallen steadily in recent days. More than 650 flights on Tuesday were canceled, about 150 of them operated by United.