“Rapid and unpredictable” – the words WestJet’s interim CEO is using to describe the spread of the Omicron variant through his airline’s workforce. Indeed, the spread of the new virus variant, combined with intense winter weather in Western Canada, has greatly exacerbated the pre-existing issue of global staffing shortages. These problems have led to the airline canceling 15% of its January flights as it hopes to manage passenger expectations.
Omicron takes toll on WestJet workforce
Taking to Twitter on December 30th, Canada’s second-largest airline WestJet announced that it would be consolidating approximately 15% of its scheduled flights through to the end of January. The airline cites the “accelerating impact of Omicron” as the reason.
Speaking with Global News on December 30th, WestJet VP of communications Richard Bartrem said:
“We are running roughly 450 flights a day. So if you look at the percentages, that works out to be about 60 or 70 flights that you might see that would be canceled per day and then consolidated onto other flights.”
The issues appear to have ramped up significantly around December 27th. With the December 30th announcement, WestJet’s interim President and CEO Harry Taylor noted that the past 72 hours saw a significant increase in delays and cancellations impacting the carrier’s business.
Bartrem also told Global News that the airline had seen a 35% jump in active cases among staff in recent days, adding that there were 181 WestJet employees currently affected by the virus.
We have made the difficult decision to consolidate approximately 15 percent of scheduled flights through to Jan. 31, 2022, due to the accelerating impact of Omicron.
A message from Harry Taylor, WestJet, Interim President & CEO: https://t.co/QqdlVO8aBI
— WestJet News (@WestJetNews) December 30, 2021
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Winter weather wallops Western Canada
Taylor’s public message also cited “prolonged frigid temperatures across Western Canada and global staffing shortages” as contributing factors in the airline’s decision to consolidate and cancel flights.
In the days leading up to the WestJet announcement, the city of Edmonton saw temperatures as low as -41.6 Celsius. However, this would have felt like -55 Celsius with wind chill. Calgary, WestJet’s home airport, saw temperatures as cold as -43 Celsius with the wind chill. For reference, -55 Celsius is equivalent to -67 Fahrenheit.
It’s not just extra time needed to de-ice the wings of aircraft. As Toronto Pearson International Airport’s website notes, extreme cold can impair ground crew’s ability to work safely and make it more difficult to operate machinery used to move heavy loads or unload aircraft, adding “To break up the time spent outside, workers have breaks in between incoming or outgoing flights to warm up in sheltered areas.”
Winter storm Frida rolling through the American Midwest is also taking its toll on airline operations. Southwest Airlines “proactively suspended operations at both Chicago airports as of 1pm CST [Saturday].” The airline told Simple Flying that it operates well over 200 departures a day at Chicago Midway alone and anticipates gusty winds and blowing snow.
WestJet will accommodate as many passengers as possible
WestJet notes that its schedule changes will be implemented over the coming days, calling consolidation a last resort. “It demonstrates the reality of the service we planned versus that we 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,” Taylor notes.
Guests with impacted flights will be proactively notified while WestJet-initiated cancellation or schedule changes (where the schedule change was greater than 90 minutes or one or more stops were added) are eligible for a refund to the original form of payment if desired.
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