Air Travel Is No Holiday as Covid-19 and Winter Storms Cancel Flights

“We realized that we have got to make sure that we have staffing in place,” David Seymour, American’s chief operating officer, said in an interview. The airline recalled several thousand flight attendants from leave last month and this month and hired almost 600 more.

When chaos strikes, airlines engage in a complicated choreography to get out of it.

The main goal, airlines and aviation experts say, is to minimize the effect on passengers. But that’s easier said than done.

Alaska Airlines spent months laying plans for this holiday season, investing in staff and equipment to deal with the winter weather and lining up backup flight crews, according to Constance von Muehlen, its chief operating officer.

The airline managed staff calling in sick at high rates by offering extra pay for others to fill in, but sustained snowfall and record low temperatures in the Seattle area forced it to cancel nearly one-third of its flights on Sunday, about one-quarter on Monday and about one-fifth on Tuesday.

“Once you get your day off poorly, there’s nothing you can do to catch up,” Ms. von Muehlen said.

On Tuesday, the airline issued a stark announcement. Alaska would cut about 20 percent of flights out of Seattle in the coming days to allow extra time to de-ice planes. It also “strongly” urged customers to delay nonessential travel until after this weekend.

“Our values guided our decision,” she said. “We need to be as realistic as possible in what we will be able to operate and to let people know, as difficult as it is for us to do that.”