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International

Widespread flight cancellations continue as omicron spreads

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NEW YORK (AP) — Hundreds of flights were cancelled Wednesday as the omicron variant creates havoc both for travelers and for airlines that are having to cobble together flight crews as pilots, flight attendants and ground crews become infected or are exposed to others who have been.

More than 850 flights were cancelled by midday Wednesday and that number has ticked higher throughout the day, according to data from the flight-tracking website FlightAware. There were nearly 1,300 cancellations for flights entering, leaving or inside the U.S. Tuesday, and about 1,500 on Monday.

Cancellations began to spike the day before Christmas during what is already a buzzing pace for airlines this time of year.

Delta, United and JetBlue have all said that the omicron variant was causing enough staffing issues that flights were cancelled.

SkyWest led U.S. carriers with 195 cancellations, followed by United with 158 and Delta with 103. SkyWest, a regional airline based in Utah, has suffered an elevated level of cancellations after severe weather hit several of its hubs, but it’s reporting the same staffing issues due to COVID-19.

The Pacific Northwest was slammed with cold and heavy snow over the weekend. Among U.S. airports, Seattle-Tacoma had the highest percentage of incoming and outgoing flights cancelled Wednesday, according to FlightAware.

Omicron has intensified already significant staffing issues for airlines, which winnowed workforces in 2020 as air travel collapsed, only to be broadsided when vaccination rates jumped and millions of people felt comfortable flying again this year.

That could translate to travel headaches for hundreds of thousands of people if cancellations maintain the current pace into the weekend. The Transportation Security Administration expects the Monday after New Year’s will be one of the busiest days of the holiday season.

According to TSA checkpoint data, the numbers of people flying this holiday season far exceeds last year — before COVID-19 vaccinations were available — but still trails 2019 traveler numbers.

The Associated Press

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Disaster

Survivors scream as desperate rescuers work in Turkey, Syria

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By Mehmet Guzel And Zeynep Bilginsoy in Adana

ADANA, Turkey (AP) — Rescuers called out, “Slowly, slowly,” as they lifted a man inch by inch from between slabs of collapsed concrete Monday in the Turkish province that was the epicenter of a devastating earthquake.

His neck in a brace, the barefoot man was carried on a stretcher as he emerged. Rescuers in Pazarcik in the province of Kahramanmaras held him aloft and ran off with him.

It was among numerous rescue efforts that unfolded as darkness, rain and cold enveloped the region of Turkey and Syria that was rocked by a powerful 7.8 magnitude earthquake. Hours later, a 7.5 magnitude temblor struck more than 100 kilometers (60 miles) away. At least 3,400 people were killed, and civilians joined rescuers in desperate efforts across Turkey and Syria.

“Can anyone hear me?” rescuers shouted. In some places around southeast Turkey, survivors could be heard screaming from beneath collapsed buildings.

People crouched to look below a massive sheet of concrete propped at an angle by steel bars. They crawled in and out, trying to reach survivors. Excavating equipment dug through the rubble below.

Elsewhere in Kahramanmaras province, rescuers pulled two children alive from the rubble. One lay on a stretcher on the snowy ground. Rescuers quieted the throngs of people trying to help so they could hear survivors and find them.

Some emerged safely then waited to hear any word on relatives.

“My two grandchildren, my daughter-in-law, are all inside. They haven’t come out,” said Hasan Birbalta while waiting near a collapsed building in Pazarcik, adding the granddaughter is 2 and the grandson is 6.

Thousands of search-and-rescue personnel, firefighters and medics were working across 10 provinces, along with some 3,500 soldiers. Residents lifted rubble and unearthed people heard screaming from beneath buildings. Aftershocks made rescue efforts more dangerous.

In Adana, about 20 people, some in emergency rescue jackets, used power saws atop the concrete mountain of a collapsed building to carve out space that would let any survivors climb out or be rescued. Later, excavators joined the efforts as bright spotlights illuminated the wreckage.

Turkish military ambulance planes were transporting the injured to Istanbul and Ankara hospitals, the defense ministry said. Rescuers from across Turkey tried to make it to the provinces amid heavy snow and rain.

At a news conference late Monday, four ministers said that because Hatay’s airport had been severely damaged, they had to fly into Adana nearly three hours away.

In Syria, a man held a dead girl in his arms beside a two-story collapsed concrete building as he walked away from the debris. He and a woman set the girl on the floor under covering to protect her from the rain, wrapping her in a large blanket and looking back to the building, overwhelmed.

An official with Turkey’s disaster management authority said 7,840 people had been rescued across 10 provinces. The official, Orhan Tatar, said 5,606 buildings had collapsed.

Tatar said the total area affected was large and places were hard to reach, but that as of late Monday, teams had been directed to all collapsed buildings.

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Bilginsoy reported from Istanbul. Associated Press writer Carley Petesch in Chicago contributed.

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Banks

Britcoin? UK gets closer to launching a digital currency

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By Danica Kirka in London

LONDON (AP) — Britcoin is moving closer to reality.

U.K. authorities on Monday said British businesses and consumers are likely to need a digital version of the pound, formally asking for public comment on the idea of introducing a central bank digital currency.

Britain, home to the world’s second-biggest financial center, is trailing former colonies such as Nigeria, the Bahamas and Jamaica in rolling out a digital currency. More than 80% of the world’s central banks are considering launching digital currencies or have already done so, according to the consultant PwC.

“While cash is here to stay, a digital pound issued and backed by the Bank of England could be a new way to pay that’s trusted, accessible and easy to use,” Treasury chief Jeremy Hunt said in a statement. “That’s why we want to investigate what is possible first, whilst always making sure we protect financial stability.”

The call for public input comes almost two years after the Treasury and Bank of England said they were considering introducing a digital currency.

While Prime Minister Rishi Sunak suggested naming the initiative “Britcoin” when he was Treasury chief, the Bank of England has stressed that the potential currency shouldn’t be confused with cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.

Backed by the central bank, the new currency would be “reliable and retain its value over time,” in contrast to cryptocurrencies that can fluctuate wildly and threaten the holdings of investors, the Bank of England says on its website.

That industry has been particularly unstable in recent months, escalating calls for greater regulation. Crypto crashes last yeartanked assets, while crypto exchange FTX’s multibillion-dollar collapse and bankruptcy in November triggered fraud chargesagainst founder Sam Bankman-Fried.

The proposed digital currency would be denominated in pounds, with 10 pounds of digital currency always equal to a 10-pound note, the bank said. Held in a digital wallet, the currency could be used to pay for goods and services electronically.

Supporters of central bank digital currencies say they make digital transactions easier and cheaper and expand access to the financial system because they can be used by people who don’t have bank accounts.

This is one of the reasons the Bahamas became the first country to introduce a digital currency in 2020. Nigeria and Jamaica have since followed suit, with China and more than 20 other countries running trial projects. The U.S. and European Union are considering introducing digital currencies.

But digital currencies also present risks, including cyberattacks, privacy concerns and the danger that they can be used by criminals.

Because money invested in central bank digital currencies is safer than a bank deposit, they also may draw savings away from commercial banks and weaken the financial system, critics argue.

A digital pound would have “risks but no obvious benefits,” former Bank of England Gov. Mervyn King, now a member of the House of Lords, said recently.

While such digital currencies may be useful in countries that don’t have effective banking systems, that’s not the case in the Britain, he said.

“The government has said that it wants the U.K. to be at the forefront of innovation, crypto-assets and fintech, but we need to be selective and not driven by a misplaced enthusiasm for all things crypto,” King said.

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