(CNN) — The year is off to a rough start for air travelers.
Widespread cancellations, tied in part to the spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus among airline crews, have piled up over Christmas and into 2022.
And the highly transmissible variant has once again intensified personal risk calculations around routine activities — including air travel.
One silver lining for those who are flying in the first few months of 2022: Airfares are down.
Here’s where things stand for air travelers as 2022 gets underway:
Omicron is complicating everything
The Omicron variant of the coronavirus is up to three times more infectious than the Delta variant, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 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, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech who studies how viruses travel in the air.
“Certainly, the risk of getting infected is higher because Omicron is so easily transmissible and partially escapes the vaccine, but the risk of hospitalization may not be significantly different if you are vaccinated and boosted,” Marr said via email.
“The relative risk has probably increased, just as the relative risk of going to the supermarket or catching a bus has increased with Omicron,” Powell said.
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.
Travelers wait in security lines at Miami International Airport on January 3.
Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images
But the rest of the air travel experience — standing in security lines, traveling on airport trains and shuttles, and waiting to board planes in cramped jet bridges — means lots of exposure to other people.
“Because Omicron is so easily transmissible, travelers should upgrade to an N95, KN95 or KF94 respirator,” Marr said.
“Be careful about eating, when you have to remove your mask, and try to do it outdoors if possible, or as far away from other people as possible,” she said.
Trying to stagger passengers’ eating and drinking on board — the times when removing masks is allowed — is helpful, Powell told Bloomberg.
And if you’re not vaccinated?
Flight cancellations pile up
Flight cancellations and delays are another travel worry right now.
On Monday, cancellations reached a holiday-season high, with more than 3,200 flights canceled to, from or within the United States, according to flight tracking site FlightAware.com.
Bad weather over the New Year’s weekend compounded disruptions that became widespread on Christmas Eve. From December 24 through January 4, more than 20,300 flights were canceled to, from or within the United States, FlightAware data shows. During the same period, nearly 83,000 flights were delayed.
Kathleen Bangs, a former airline pilot and spokesperson for FlightAware, pointed out that flight crews bumped up against Federal Aviation Administration limits on their flight hours at the end of December, making it difficult to find crewmembers “who had enough hours left to take extra flights, work overtime, etc.”
January means a reset on those monthly limits. “Now the slate is clear again for the coming weeks,” Bangs said. January is also not typically a busy month for US air travel, she noted.
Bangs suggests flying nonstop whenever possible. When faced with a long delay or cancellation, get on the airline’s website or app instead of standing in line at the gate or on the phone, she advises.
Snyder encourages travelers to book longer connections to give themselves a buffer in the event of delays, but he said there’s “no silver bullet” because illness and weather are unpredictable.
“Otherwise, it’s important to keep perspective here,” Snyder said. “Even with all these cancellations, 9 out of 10 flights operated, so the vast majority of people will be fine.”
On the worst days of this holiday season for cancellations — January 1 through January 3 — FlightAware shows that about 10% to 13% of flights were canceled.
The good news, if you’re traveling soon
Domestic US airfare is averaging $239/round-trip in January 2022, down 17% from January 2019 and 12% from January 2020, according Hopper economist Adit Damodaran.
“We expect the Omicron variant to dampen travel demand and lead to lower airfare on domestic trips for the first two months of 2022,” Damodaran said, before demand starts to pick up again in mid-February.
Around April, Hopper expects to see 2019 prices in the domestic market again.
There’s good news on airfares for international travelers, too.
“We’d definitely consider international airfare right now to be very cheap compared to the past years, approaching historical lows of $600/round-trip that we last observed during the Delta variant wave in the late summer of 2021,” Damodaran said.
January 2022’s $659/round-trip price is down 12% from January 2019 and 8% from January 2020.
Damodaran expects fares domestically and internationally to increase by single-digit percentages each month heading into summer.
While prices may rise, there’s hope that cases will fall and make traveling safer and smoother in 2022.