Nearly 5,000 flights canceled as omicron sparks Christmas travel chaos

Almost 5,000 flights were canceled across the world over Christmas weekend as holiday travel plans were brought to a halt amid the rapidly spreading omicron variant of Covid-19.

About 2,800 global flights were canceled on Christmas Day alone, according to flight tracker FlightAware, with some airline companies citing the spread of the new variant as the cause for the disruption. Close to 1,000 of the flights cancelled on Saturday had been set to fly within, into or out of the United States.

Thousands of Americans who were hoping to make it home for Christmas were likely left stranded, while in some parts of the country extreme weather caused further complications.

Several major airlines, including United, Delta and Alaska, said they had been forced to cancel hundreds of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day flights after the omicron variant infected employees and crew members. United said some of its 210 cancellations Saturday were also a result of close contact situations.

It comes as thousands of people across the U.S. were expected to be quarantining this Christmas after testing positive for Covid-19, while many others canceled, delayed or altered their festive plans due to rising cases amid the spread of the highly-transmissible variant.

On Christmas Eve alone, more than 197,300 new Covid cases were reported, according to a tracker maintained by The New York Times, which noted that many states did not report data for the day.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not update their Covid data tracker on Friday and will not be doing so through Christmas and Boxing Day, before resuming on Monday, Dec. 27.

Extreme Christmas weather also threatened travel difficulties, with winter storms in the western U.S. bringing rain, snow and potentially even a rare white Christmas for some.

On Thursday, flooding in California left two people dead after their vehicle was submerged in a flooded underpass in Millbrae, south of San Francisco. Evacuation orders were also issued in Orange County due to possible mudslides and debris flows in three canyons, but they were lifted on Christmas Eve.

In a Christmas Day forecast summary, the National Weather Service said parts of the west could expect “significant mountain snowfall, travel disruptive lowland snow and rain through the Holiday Weekend.”

“Anomalously cold conditions and a barrage of Pacific moisture results in prolonged periods of mountain snow and coastal/valley rain, some of which may fall heavy at times,” the weather service said, adding that “enough cold air is in place for even metropolitan areas of the Northwest to receive measurable snowfall.”

The heaviest snowfall, however, was expected to come down in the northern and central Sierras, with 2 to 4 feet of snow expected.

“Travel will be treacherous, to at time(s) impossible, from the Sierras to the central Rockies this weekend due to whiteout conditions and drifting snow,” the National Weather Service warned.

The snow already caused major travel delays on Christmas Eve, with multiple spinouts forcing the closure of highways and interstates for hours, according to NBC affiliate KCRA-TV.

The delays lasted so long that some families began taking chairs out of their vehicles and creating an impromptu tailgate, KCRA reported.

In Portland, Oregon, a winter storm warning was issued as residents waited to see whether they will get a white Christmas this year.

According to the National Weather Service, the city’s metro area could receive as much as 2 to 5 inches of snow. Meanwhile, Seattle in neighboring Washington state could also witness a rare few inches of snow, with the city under a winter weather advisory through Sunday afternoon.

As parts of the western U.S. see storms, areas in the central and eastern U.S. are expected to see unusually warm temperatures, with record highs also possible form the Southern Plains to Mid-Atlantic.

“The warmest average temperatures for Christmas Day will stretch from the heart of Texas to the Middle Mississippi Valley, Ohio Valley, and Mid-Atlantic where temperature departures look to range between 25 to 35 degrees above normal,” the National Weather Service said.