CALGARY — WestJet Airlines Ltd. is dealing with so many employees out sick with the Omicron variant that it is being forced to cut 15 per cent of its scheduled flights through to the end of January.
WestJet spokeswoman Morgan Bell confirmed via email that the airline has seen a 35 per cent rise in active COVID-19 cases among staff in recent days, with 181 employees currently testing positive for virus.
In a statement Thursday, WestJet's interim chief executive Harry Taylor said the airline has seen a significant increase in delays and cancellations impacting its business over the past 72 hours.
"We could not have anticipated the rapid and unpredictable impact of the Omicron variant on our people and operations, coupled with prolonged frigid temperatures across Western Canada and global staffing shortages," Taylor said.
"Despite all contingency planning, in addition to hiring back thousands of WestJetters to safely support peak operations, we find ourselves no longer able to predictably resource our planned schedule due to Omicron impact."
As a result of the staff shortages, WestJet will remove about 15 per cent of flights from its schedule through Jan. 31. Prior to the cuts, which will be implemented over the next few days, the airline has been operating 450 flights per day.
The move is a "last resort," Taylor said, but reflects the reality of the service level WestJet can now "realistically deliver."
"It is the best option to ensure the availability of our frontline staff and third-party service providers, while minimizing the impact on our guests," he said.
WestJet said it will notify all customers with affected flights. For any WestJet-initiated cancellation or schedule change, where the schedule change was greater than 90 minutes or one or more stops were added, guests are eligible for a refund.
The announcement comes as more than 850 flights were cancelled in the U.S. on Wednesday, according to data from the flight-tracking website FlightAware. There were nearly 1,300 cancellations for flights entering, leaving or inside the U.S. Tuesday, and about 1,500 on Monday.
Both Delta Air Lines and United Airlines said the nationwide spike in cases this week has affected flight crews and left carriers short-staffed.
In Canada as of mid-afternoon Thursday, WestJet had cancelled 74 of its 466 scheduled flights for the day, according to data provided by Cirium, an airline data company.
Air Canada had cancelled 76 of its 905 scheduled Thursday flights, according to Cirium, while Porter Airlines had cancelled none and Flair Airlines had cancelled four.
Air Canada spokeswoman Angela Mah said in an email that the carrier is experiencing "limited disruptions," most of which are due to adverse weather across the country.
"While overall we have the crews to operate our flights, some of aviation’s third-party service and support providers have experienced operational constraints, which together with the difficult winter conditions, have affected the current schedule," Mah said.
She added that Air Canada continues to evaluate and adjust its route network for 2022 in response to the trajectory of the pandemic, government-imposed travel restrictions and quarantines, regulatory requirements and overall demand.
A spokesman for Flair Airlines said the Edmonton-based low-cost-carrier currently has a small number of crew with confirmed cases of COVID-19, though he said this hasn't affected the airline's ability to staff and operate flights.
"Our recent cancellations have been largely weather-related and not related to staffing shortages due to the Omicron variant," said Matthew Kunz, Flair's vice-president of business transformation and operations.
Porter Airlines spokesman Brad Cicero said that airline's flights have operated "generally well" over the last week. He said the limited cancellations that have occurred are due largely to weather and aircraft maintenance, though a small number have been related to "staffing."
Air Transat said earlier in the week it had not cancelled any flights due to Omicron.
The federal government requires both Canadian airline employees and passengers departing from Canadian airports to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
On Thursday, WestJet said additional measures from federal and provincial governments are "urgently needed" to minimize further disruption to the aviation sector.
The airline is calling for Canada to follow the guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control which recommended on Monday that Americans with COVID-19 should isolate for five days rather than 10 if they're not showing symptoms. Several provinces have already relaxed their isolation rules this week, but WestJet wants a uniform standard across the country.
WestJet also wants to see a removal of the self-isolation requirement for asymptomatic close contacts.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 30, 2021.
Amanda Stephenson, The Canadian Press