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Lufthansa cuts winter flights over low demand

December 24, 2021

German airline Lufthansa is slashing its winter schedule as a result of reduced demand amid the omicron variant. It's also struggling with pilots off sick over the holiday period.

Lufthansa planes lined up at Frankfurt Airport
Lufthansa short-term operations over the festive period have also been affected, with many crew members out sickImage: Daniel Kubirski/picture alliance

German air carrier Lufthansa plans to cut 33,000 flights from its winter schedule, about 10% of its total flight plan.

CEO Carsten Spohr told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung newspaper that there had been a sharp downturn in bookings, particularly in the mid-January to February period. 

"Above all we are missing passengers in our home markets of Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Belgium, because these countries have been hit hardest by the pandemic wave," he said. 

Spohr said the airline was running just 60% of flights compared to the pre-pandemic year 2019, with "roughly half" the number of passengers.

Spohr also complained that Lufthansa was planning to run its currently scheduled services not because there was demand for them, but because it was the minimum number required for the airline to keep its takeoff and landing slots at major airports. 

"Because of the reduced demand in January, we even would have canceled considerably more flights. But in winter we will have to carry out 18,000 extra, unnecessary flights, just to secure our takeoff and landing rights," Spohr said.

Lufthansa is Europe's largest airline group and includes Eurowings, Austrian, Swiss and Brussels Airlines. It posted a profit in the third quarter this year for the first time, after a difficult pandemic period. 

With many pilots sick, flights grounded

But Lufthansa's shorter-term operations over the festive period have also been affected. A bout of illness and concerns about the omicron variant among its pilots has also caused Lufthansa to ground about a dozen flights over the next two weeks. 

Flights to Boston, Houston and Washington had particularly been affected, with some flights to Japan also being canceled. A company representative told German news agency dpa that they had planned "a very large buffer. But that is not sufficient considering the extremely high sickness rate."

Omicron threatens air travel

The company official did not want to speculate on whether the absentees were a result of COVID or the omicron variant. The company said crew planners were also finding it difficult as many staff members have had to go into quarantine. 

American carriers also cancel flights with sick crew

American air carriers United Airlines and Delta Air Lines also grounded 120 and 90 flights respectively for Christmas Eve, as their crew has been impacted by the variant.

"The nationwide spike in omicron cases this week has had a direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operation. As a result, we’ve unfortunately had to cancel some flights and are notifying impacted customers in advance of them coming to the airport," said United. 

Other airlines reduce offerings 

Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) said it also had to cancel some flights due to the virus. Ryanair has also cut its January schedule by 33%. International travel restrictions have had a dampening effect on travel in the holiday season. 

However, a few airlines operating within Europe are seeing strong sales in the Christmas period this year. Easyjet, Ryanair, SAS and Wizz Air are offering more connections during the holiday break.

tg/msh (dpa, AFP, Reuters)

Correction (December 27, 2021): This article has been corrected to clarify that SAS is Scandinavian Airlines