NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – Holiday travel is stressful enough, but the nationwide surge in COVID cases has made things worse as flights get cancelled hours before Christmas.

As CBS2’s Kevin Rincon reports, throughout Friday he’s seen families with mounds of luggage make their way to Newark Liberty International Airport only to find out their flight has been cancelled.

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The ongoing rise in COVID has hit the airline industry hard, and it was already dealing with staffing shortages before all of this.

COVID VACCINE

“We’re trying to go visit my brother in Italy, in Milan, and our flight apparently just got rebooked until tomorrow,” said traveler Katie Feng.

Feng and her family are among the thousands forced to change their plans hours before Christmas. At Newark Airport, the departure board featured plenty of delays and cancellations.

Priscile Tavares and her family came loaded with luggage for a month-long trip to Brazil that’ll now have to wait.

“Imagine, with all of our bags, leaving the house, thinking we’re going to travel. And then you get here, and it’s canceled,” Tavares said.

The issues at Newark and at airports all across the country are due to staffing shortages. Airlines were already hard pressed to find workers, and then came the new surge in COVID cases.

“It’s creating quite a problem at many of the airlines,” said Thom McDaniel, vice president at the Transport Workers Union of America. “They’re sick and tired. Literally sick and tired… A lot of flight attendants aren’t willing to pick up an extra shift. They just want to come to work, do their job, and go home – hopefully not go home with COVID.”

Air Travel Links

Meanwhile, for those who are lucky enough to leave on time, it’s still a headache navigating a flight out.

“I thought it was incredibly stressful two years ago. I had no idea what stressful really meant until now,” said traveler Isabela Danielsen.

As for the shortages, Delta Air Lines had asked the CDC to consider shortening the quarantine protocols from 10 days to five. Rincon spoke with unions representing flight attendants – they reached out to the CDC to say the current rules should be kept in place.

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Across the country, United canceled more than 165 flights. At least 55 were out of Newark.

Delta canceled at least 109 flights nationwide.

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“I’m feeling ready to get home and start the holidays,” traveler Brenda Womack told CBS2’s John Dias.

Womack said that with a smile, trying to keep up the holiday cheer, even though she was stranded overnight at Newark Liberty International Airport. Her flight to Arkansas was canceled, and it has been difficult getting on a new one.

“When they came on at 4 this morning, the lady told me I couldn’t get out until 4:59 this afternoon,” Womack said.

Airlines are seeing a 184% increase in traffic from 2020. But nationwide, delayed messages are greeting thousands of travelers at airports this Christmas Eve, and hundreds of other flights were just flat-out canceled, mostly due to Omicron cases. Airline staff are calling out sick with COVD, or saying they had been exposed to someone infected.

“Not surprising. They have so much public contact, that folks, despite their best efforts are coming down with the virus,” said Robert Sinclair of AAA.

In a statement, Delta Air Lines apologized to customers, saying in part “teams have exhausted all options and resources – including rerouting and substitutions of aircraft and crews to cover scheduled flying.”

“There is a only so much an employer can do. For those who work in offices, employers can say stay home and work remotely, but that’s not the case with airline personnel,” Sinclair said.

Lines grew at Jet Blue‘s terminal for on-time flights. Passengers say the airline was experiencing issues printing out baggage tickets, causing a backlog.

“Machines not working right, it’s terrible,” said Marj Newberg of Moorestown, N.J.

CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC

Hundreds anxiously waited for hours, fearing they’ll miss their flights.

“It’s awful. It’s awful,” said Westfield, N.J. resident Jenny McSweeny.

“My siblings and parents, I think they’re stressed out,” said Goshen, N.Y. resident Mark Colella.

Many airlines say they’re doing their best to try and re-book as many travelers as they possibly can, trying to get them to their holiday destination in time – but clearly they’re up against that Christmas clock.

Travel experts say already existing staff shortages due to the pandemic are playing a factor in this. It’s thought that March of 2022 is the earliest they’ll fix the overall problem.

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Kevin Rincon contributed to this report. 

John Dias