United Airlines Paying Pilots Triple Time,or More, to Take Open Flights in January

As flights are being canceled across the United States, airlines like United are taking extra steps to make sure more flights aren't grounded.

United Airlines announced it would pay pilots triple their usual pay or more to take open flights this month.

According to a Friday staff note from Bryan Quigley, United's senior vice president of flight operations, which was obtained by CNBC, the pilots were paid three and a half times their regular pay for open flights they took between December 30 and January 3 and will be paid triple for flights they pick up between January 4 and January 29.

This came as an agreement between United and the Air Line Pilots Association, a pilots' union.

United's flight attendants will also be paid extra to pick up more flights during this period.

This comes as over 1,900 U.S. flights were grounded just as of early Monday, flight tracking service FlightAware reported. Another approximately 5,400 U.S. flights were canceled over the weekend. Winter storms and COVID-19 fears were to blame for the cancellations.

United is not the only airline offering higher pay to its employees. According to a spokesperson for the Association of Flight Attendants, Spirit Airlines recently reached a deal with the union to pay its cabin crews double through Tuesday.

CNBC reported JetBlue, American and Southwest have also implemented similar pay raises during this period.

Dulles International Airport, COVID-19, United Airlines
United Airlines is offering its pilots triple pay to pick up more flights in January. Above, a woman checks in for her flight at a United Airlines kiosk at the Dulles International Airport on December 27 in Dulles, Virginia. Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

A winter storm is expected to bring as much as 10 inches of snow for the District of Columbia, northern Virginia and central Maryland through Monday afternoon.

The cancellations, coupled with more than 5,000 flight delays on Monday, just add to the despair felt over the weekend by holidays travelers trying to get home.

"It was absolute mayhem," said Natasha Enos, a 28-year-old financial analyst who spent a sleepless Saturday night and Sunday morning at Denver International Airport during what was supposed to be a short layover on a cross-country trip from Washington to San Francisco.

Saturday's single-day U.S. toll of grounded flights was the highest since just before Christmas, when airlines began blaming staffing shortages on increasing COVID-19 infections among crews.

A winter storm that hit the Midwest on Saturday made Chicago the worst place in the country for travelers throughout the weekend. About a quarter of all flights at O'Hare International Airport were canceled Sunday.

Denver's airport also faced significant disruptions. Enos, who was flying on Frontier Airlines, didn't learn that her connecting flight home to California was canceled until she had already landed in Denver. Then it was a rush to find alternative flights and navigate through baggage claims packed with stranded and confused travelers, amid concerns about the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant of COVID-19.

"It was a lot of people in a very small space and not everybody was masking," said Enos. "There were a lot of exhausted kids and some families were so stressed out."

In Michigan, the authority that runs Detroit International Airport said crews were working around the clock to remove snow and maintain the airfield. Atlanta's airport authority advised travelers to arrive earlier than usual because of high passenger volume, potential weather issues and pandemic-fueled staffing shortages that could lengthen the time it takes to get through security gates.

And thousands of miles from the closest snowstorms, Hawaiian Airlines said it had to cancel several flights between islands and across the Pacific due to staffing shortages.

Southwest Airlines said it was working to help customers affected by about 400 flights canceled around the country Sunday, about 11 percent of its schedule. The Dallas-based airline anticipates even more operational challenges to come as the storm system pushes into the Eastern seaboard.

Delta Air Lines said Sunday it was issuing a travel waiver for planned flights this week out of mid-Atlantic airports in Baltimore and Washington in preparation for forecast winter weather.

American Airlines said most of Sunday's canceled flights had been canceled ahead of time to avoid last-minute disruptions at the airport.

SkyWest, a regional carrier that operates flights under the names American Eagle, Delta Connection and United Express, grounded more than 500 flights Sunday, about 20 percent of its schedule, according to FlightAware.

Airlines hope that extra pay for employees and reduced schedules get them through the holiday crush and into the heart of January, when travel demand usually drops off. The seasonal decline could be sharper than normal this year because most business travelers are still grounded.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.