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When will flight cancellation chaos end? CDC’s new quarantine guidance may help, but it’s no ‘silver bullet’

Travelers ride an escalator past “The Falls,” an art installation by Gordon Huether, at Salt Lake City International Airport.
Travelers ride an escalator past “The Falls,” an art installation by Gordon Huether, at Salt Lake City International Airport in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021. On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced new recommendations for the amount of time people should isolate after testing positive for COVID-19, shortening the quarantine from 10 days to five days if they don’t have symptoms. A mask should also be worn around others for at least five more days.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced new recommendations for the amount of time people should isolate after testing positive for COVID-19, which could resolve some staffing issues among airlines that resulted in thousands of delays and cancellations worldwide.

But “some” is the optimal word. Between staffing problems that existed before the pandemic, the current labor shortage and the prevalence of the omicron COVID-19 variant, the CDC’s announcement is not “a silver bullet by any stretch of the imagination,” said Bill Wyatt, executive director of the Salt Lake City International Airport.

“It will be helpful, because essentially you’re cutting that quarantine time in half,” Wyatt told the Deseret News.

Why could the new CDC guidelines help?

The CDC now recommends those who tested positive for COVID-19 quarantine for five days, instead of 10, if they don’t have symptoms. A mask should be worn around others for at least five more days. The Biden administration is also requiring masks at all airports and on airplanes through March 18.

“What is likely is that it will mitigate the impact of all the COVID illnesses with crews,” said Brett Snyder, president of Cranky Concierge, a travel planning agency. Snyder also started the Cranky Flier, an airline industry blog.

“The thing is, you just don’t know what it’s going to look like,” he said.

Airlines pushed for shorter quarantine period

Monday’s announcement comes just a week after Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian penned a letter asking the CDC to recommend nearly identical guidelines, according to Reuters — guidelines that wouldn’t “significantly impact our workforce and operations,” like the 10-day quarantine, the letter reads. The company’s chief health officer and a medical adviser also signed the letter.

JetBlue followed suit with its own letter to the CDC, as did Airlines for America, the industry’s lobbying group.

Virus-induced staff shortages, coupled with winter weather, resulted in a tough stretch of days for both airlines and travelers during what is the busiest week of the year.

What’s happening in Utah

On Tuesday, Salt Lake City International Airport had 36 cancellations and 406 delays, for flights both in and out of Utah — as of Wednesday afternoon, the airport had 27 cancellations and 94 delays, according to the website Flightaware.

That’s an improvement from Monday, where the airport saw 68 cancellations and 387 delays by the end of the day. It may seem like the snow squall that swept through the Salt Lake Valley Monday evening could have been a main factor, but as Wyatt said, “they can clear a runway and a taxiway very quickly, it’s second nature here in Salt Lake.”

“It’s not really weather. There’s literally nobody to fly the plane,” he told the Deseret News.

Flight cancellations, delays nationwide

Monday was a hard day for travelers everywhere, with over 16,600 delays worldwide and 3,260 cancellations. The U.S. saw over 8,000 delays and 1,474 cancellations. Airline stocks subsequently fell.

Experts say it’s unclear whether the problems will be resolved anytime soon. Once the holidays are over, the lighter schedule could ease the burden on the airline industry.

“Airlines should be able to have a lighter schedule. It should give them more slack over the next couple of months until the spring break,” said Snyder. “The problem is, you may have more slack, but what if half your workforce gets COVID? It doesn’t matter how much slack you have. So there’s no way to predict that.”

Why airline issues are bigger than weather, holidays or COVID-19

Wyatt said it’s important to look at the labor issues plaguing the airline industry long before the holiday cancellations.

“It was confronting pilot shortages before COVID, and on top of that there were furloughs and retirements during COVID, and I think many of the carriers are still recovering from that,” he said.

The news isn’t being received well by everyone in the industry, including Sara Nelson, President of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA International, a powerful union.

“We said we wanted to hear from medical professionals on the best guidance for quarantine, not from corporate America advocating for a shortened period due to staffing shortages. The CDC gave a medical explanation about why the agency has decided to reduce the quarantine requirements from 10 to five days, but the fact that it aligns with the number of days pushed by corporate America is less than reassuring,” Nelson said in a statement.

Nelson says the new requirements could result in companies pressuring workers to return prematurely, “which will cause a much greater disruption than any ‘staffing shortages.’”