By Marnie Hunter, CNN
The year has started badly for air travelers.
Widespread cancellations, linked in part to the spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus among airline crews, piled up over Christmas and into 2022.
And the highly transmissible variant has once again stepped up personal risk calculations around routine activities, including air travel.
A silver lining for those traveling in the first months of 2022: Airfares are going down.
Here’s where air travelers stand on the eve of 2022:
Omicron complicates everything
The Omicron variant of the coronavirus is up to three times more infectious than the Delta variant, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Tuesday.
So, is the risk of air travel higher with Omicron?
“Hard to say because it depends on whether you’re talking about infection or hospitalization,” said Linsey Marr, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech who studies how viruses travel through the air.
“Certainly the risk of getting infected is higher because Omicron is so easily transmitted and partially evades the vaccine, but the risk of hospitalization may not be significantly different if you are vaccinated and boosted,” Marr said by e- mail.
Dr David Powell, medical adviser to the International Air Transport Association, recently said in a interview with Bloomberg News that the risk of infection with Omicron in flight may be two to three times greater than Delta.
“The relative risk has probably increased, just as the relative risk of going to the supermarket or taking a bus has increased with Omicron,” said Powell.
The group went out with a declaration the next day, stressing that “the aircraft cabin remains a very low risk environment for contracting COVID-19 even though the Omicron appears to be more transmissible than the other variants in all environments”.
The statement highlights the rate of air exchange and filtration and the direction of air flow in aircraft cabins as factors that contribute to the low-risk environment.
Major commercial jets have ventilation systems with high quality HEPA filters capable of removing tiny airborne particles, making the air on board cleaner than most enclosed public spaces.
But the rest of the air travel experience – standing in the security lines, traveling on trains and airport shuttles, and waiting to board planes on cramped jet bridges – means a lot of effort. exposure to other people.
Masking is mandatory on flights and at US airports, a mandate that has been extended by the Biden administration until March.
“Because Omicron is so easily transmitted, travelers should switch to an N95, KN95 or KF94 respirator,” Marr said.
If these specialized masks are not possible, a surgical mask is preferable to a cloth mask. With a surgical mask, by tightening the earrings, by wearing a well-fitting fabric mask over them, or tie the earrings and tuck the mask in will improve its protection, said Marr.
“Be careful about eating, when you need to take your mask off, and try to do it outside if possible, or as far away from other people as possible,” she said.
Trying to stagger meals and drinks for passengers on board – the times when mask removal is allowed – is helpful, Powell told Bloomberg.
What if you are not vaccinated?
“I agree with the CDC’s recommendation to delaying travel until you are fully immunized“said Marr.
Flight cancellations are piling up
Flight cancellations and delays are another travel issue right now.
Cancellations peaked during the holiday season on Monday, with more than 3,200 canceled flights to, from or within the United States, according to flight tracking site FlightAware.com.
Bad weather over the New Years weekend compounded the disruption that became widespread on Christmas Eve. From December 24 to January 4, more than 20,300 flights were canceled to, from or within the United States, according to data from FlightAware. During the same period, nearly 83,000 flights were delayed.
“I expect January to be a tough month not just for air travel, but for the whole country,” said Brett Snyder, president of Eccentric concierge travel assistance and a former airline employee. “Even though the cases are mostly mild, especially for the vaccinated, it still forces people to be off work for a period of time, and it will disrupt flights if enough crew members fall ill at one time. given.”
Kathleen Bangs, former airline pilot and spokesperson for FlightAware, pointed out that flight crews encountered Federal Aviation Administration limits on their flying hours at the end of December, making it difficult to find crew members “who had sufficient hours to complete additional flights. , work overtime, etc.
January means a reset of these monthly limits. “Now the slate is clear again for the next few weeks,” Bangs said. January is also not generally a busy month for air travel to the United States, she noted.
Bangs suggests flying nonstop whenever possible. For extended delays or cancellations, go to the airline’s website or app instead of queuing at the boarding gate or on the phone, she advises.
Snyder encourages travelers to book longer connections to protect themselves in the event of delays, but he said there was no “quick fix” as illness and weather are unpredictable.
“Otherwise, it’s important to keep the perspective here,” Snyder said. “Even with all of these cancellations, 9 out of 10 flights have been operated, so the vast majority of people will be fine.”
The worst days of this holiday season for cancellations – January 1-3 – FlightAware shows that around 10% to 13% of flights have been canceled.
The good news, if you’re traveling soon
Better news for travelers who are traveling soon, domestic airline tickets in the United States are generally relatively inexpensive compared to the same time period in previous years, according to the travel app’s analysis. Hopper.
According to Hopper economist Adit Damodaran, US domestic air fares average $ 239 / roundtrip in January 2022, down 17% from January 2019 and 12% from January 2020.
“We expect the Omicron variant to dampen travel demand and lead to lower air fares for domestic travel in the first two months of 2022,” Damodaran said, before demand begins to pick up again. mid February.
Around April, Hopper expects to review 2019 prices in the domestic market.
There is also good news on air fares for international travelers.
“We would certainly consider international airfares to be very cheap at present compared to previous years, approaching the all-time lows of $ 600 / roundtrip that we last saw during the Delta variant wave at the end. summer 2021, ”Damodaran said.
The January 2022 round-trip price of $ 659 is down 12% from January 2019 and 8% from January 2020.
Damodaran expects domestic and international tariffs to increase single-digit percentages each month before the summer.
While prices may increase, it is hoped that cases will decrease and make travel safer and smoother in 2022.
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CNN’s Maggie Fox and Sandee LaMotte contributed to this story. Top image: Miami International Airport in Miami, Florida on January 3, 2022 (Chandan Khanna / AFP via Getty Images)