Air travel continues to be severely disrupted in the United States, with bad weather in parts of the country adding to the impact of a surge in COVID-19 infections fuelled by the Omicron variant.
The US had 2,604 cancelled flights on Saturday, more than half of the 4,529 cancelled worldwide, shortly after 4:30pm (21:30 GMT), according to tracking website FlightAware.
Among international carriers, China Eastern scrubbed more than 500 flights, or about one-fourth of its total, and Air China cancelled more than 200 flights, one-fifth of its schedule, according to FlightAware.
The US cancellations represent the highest single-day toll since just before Christmas when airlines began announcing staffing shortages as a result of increasing COVID infections among crews.
The worst-affected US airline was Southwest, which had to cancel 450 flights nationwide or 13 percent of its flight schedule, according to the site.
American Airlines and Delta Air Lines scrubbed more than 200 flights each, and United Airlines cancelled more than 150.
SkyWest, a regional carrier that operates flights under the names American Eagle, Delta Connection and United Express, grounded 480 flights, one-fourth of its schedule. A spokesperson said weather in the cities of Chicago, Denver and Detroit as well as a COVID spike were to blame.
Airports in Chicago were hit particularly hard because of difficult weather, with a snowstorm expected in the area on Saturday afternoon and into the night.
More than 800 flights were scrubbed at O’Hare Airport and more than 250 at Midway Airport.
More than 12,000 US flights have been cancelled since December 24.
Airlines say they are taking steps to reduce cancellations. United is offering to pay pilots triple or more of their usual wages for picking up open flights through most of January. Spirit Airlines reached a deal with the Association of Flight Attendants for double pay for cabin crews through Tuesday, said a union spokeswoman.
The global air travel industry is still reeling from the highly contagious Omicron variant.
Many pilots, flight attendants and other staff are absent from work after contracting COVID, or are quarantined after coming into contact with an infected person.
China announces fresh military drills around Taiwan
China’s military announced fresh military drills on Monday in the seas and airspace around Taiwan — a day after the scheduled end of its largest ever exercises to protest against last week’s visit to Taipei by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
China’s Eastern Theatre Command said it would conduct joint drills focusing on anti-submarine and sea assault operations — confirming the fears of some security analysts and diplomats that Beijing would continue to maintain pressure on Taiwan’s defenses.
Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last week infuriated China, which regards the self-ruled island as its own and responded with test launches of ballistic missiles over Taipei for the first time, as well as ditching some lines of dialogue with Washington.
The duration and precise location of the latest drills is not yet known, but Taiwan has already eased flight restrictions near the six earlier Chinese exercise areas surrounding the island.
Shortly before the latest drills were announced, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen met visiting St. Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, telling him she was moved by his determination to visit despite China’s military pressure.
“Prime Minister Gonsalves has expressed in recent days that the Chinese military drills would not prevent him from visiting friends in Taiwan. These statements have deeply touched us,” Tsai said at a welcome ceremony for Gonsalves in Taipei.
It was unclear if Tsai had invited Gonsalves before or after Pelosi’s visit. “We don’t disclose internal planning or communications between governments,” the Taiwanese foreign ministry said when asked by Reuters.
Beyond the firing of 11 short-range ballistic missiles during the four earlier days of exercises, Chinese warships, fighter jets and drones maneuvered extensively around the island.
Shortly before those drills ended on Sunday, about 10 warships each from China and Taiwan maneuvered at close quarters around the unofficial median line of the Taiwan Strait, according to a person familiar with the situation who is involved with security planning.
Taiwan’s defense ministry said Chinese military ships, aircraft, and drones had simulated attacks on the island and its navy. It said it had sent aircraft and ships to react “appropriately.”
China’s defense ministry meanwhile maintained its diplomatic pressure on the United States, defending its shelving of military-to-military talks in protest at Pelosi’s visit.
“The current tense situation in the Taiwan Strait is entirely provoked and created by the U.S. side on its own initiative, and the U.S. side must bear full responsibility and serious consequences for this,” defense ministry spokesman Wu Qian said in an online post.
“The bottom line cannot be broken, and communication requires sincerity,” Wu said.
China called off formal talks involving theatre-level commands, defense policy co-ordination and military maritime consultations on Friday as Pelosi left the region.
Pentagon, State Department and White House officials condemned the move, describing it as an irresponsible over-reaction.
China’s cutting of some of its few communication links with the U.S. military raises the risk of an accidental escalation over Taiwan at a critical moment, according to security analysts and diplomats.
One U.S. official noted that Chinese officials had not responded to calls from senior Pentagon officials amid the tensions last week, but that they did not see this as a formal severing of ties with senior figures, such as U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Asked directly about those reports, defense ministry spokesman Wu said, “China’s relevant counter-measures are a necessary warning to the provocations of the United States and Taiwan, and a legitimate defense of national sovereignty and security.”
Biden denounces killing of four Muslims
President Joe Biden denounced the killings of four Muslim men in New Mexico state that police say may be linked and could be a hate crime.
“I am angered and saddened by the horrific killings of four Muslim men in Albuquerque,” Biden said on Twitter on Sunday.
“While we await a full investigation, my prayers are with the victims’ families, and my administration stands strongly with the Muslim community. These hateful attacks have no place in America.”
Police in Albuquerque, New Mexico’s largest city, said on Saturday that they are investigating the murders of three Muslim men that they now suspect are related to a fourth homicide from last year.
The Albuquerque police said in a statement that they discovered the latest victim overnight Friday. His body was found near a Lutheran Family Services office that provides assistance to refugees, TV station KOB4 reported.
Police did not identify the man, but said he was in his mid-20s, Muslim, and “a native from South Asia”.
” Investigators believe Friday’s murder may be connected to three recent murders of Muslim men also from South Asia,” police said.
Two of the previous victims were Muslim Pakistani men, a 27-year-old whose body was found on August 1 and a 41-year-old discovered on July 26.
Detectives are now investigating whether these murders are connected to the death of a Muslim man from Afghanistan who was killed on November 7, 2021, outside of the business he ran with his brother in Albuquerque, the statement said.
The police urged anyone with information to call a tip line and said the FBI was assisting with the investigation.
New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham expressed outrage at the killings, calling them “wholly intolerable”, and said she was sending additional state police officers to Albuquerque to aid in the investigation.
“We will continue to do everything we can to support the Muslim community of Albuquerque and greater New Mexico,” she said.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, the largest Muslim civil rights group in the United States, has offered a $10,000 reward to whoever provides information leading to the killer or killers’ arrest.
Tensions have risen sharply in the city’s Muslim community.
“Now, people are beginning to panic,” Tahir Gauba, the director of public affairs with the Islamic Center of New Mexico, told the Albuquerque Journal.
UAE tightens visa rules for Nigerians
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has released stiffer visa regulations for Nigerians. The new regulations which came after a public disturbance purportedly by some Nigerians have generated concerns among Nigerian travellers while it has created uneasy calm in the travel industry.
When a video emerged last week of some Africans causing a public disturbance in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), it was clear the government of the Middle East country would react appropriately in a bid to protect the country and its citizens from any form of harm.
In the video, youths were seen fighting in a Dubai community and destroying public property. An unconfirmed report claimed that a Dubai Police officer was killed by the hoodlums.
The Nigerian Community in Dubai under the umbrella of the Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation (NIDO), United Arab Emirates (UAE) chapter, swiftly condemned the development while particularly commending the swift intervention of the Dubai Police who got the hoodlums, about seven of them, arrested.
After arresting them, the police said a criminal case has been registered against the suspects and they will be referred to the public prosecution for further action.
The Dubai Police warned against such unacceptable behaviour and urged the community members to report such behaviour through ‘Police Eye Service’ on Dubai Police app or by calling the emergency hotline 999. The Force also warned the public of publishing or forwarding clips to avoid legal accountability according to article 52 of the UAE Federal Law No. 34 of 2021 on countering Rumours and Cybercrimes.
The law stated that whoever uses the information network to announce, disseminate, re-disseminate, circulate, or recirculate news or data, or broadcasts any provocative news that would incite or provoke public opinion, disturb the public peace, spread terror among people, or cause harm to the public interest, the national economy, the public order, or the public health shall be punished with at least one year of imprisonment and a fine of not less than Dh100,000.
For the Nigerian community in Dubai, that singular incident was a signal to what would happen in days to come. The incident sent jitters down the spine of Nigerian immigrants in the Arab country and this was coming at a time Nigerians have issues securing jobs in the country.
In a statement, the NIDO UAE Group, while commending the Dubai authorities for swiftly bringing the matter under control, clarified that the illicit act does not represent what the country stands for.
“We the Nigerians In Diaspora Organization (NIDO) United Arab Emirates group which represents the interest of law abiding Nigerians in the UAE wish to express our profound gratitude and appreciation to the Dubai Police for their swift action in clamping down on the perpetrators of the disturbing video in the last 96 hours.
“We commend the Authority and we wish to state categorically that such illicit acts do not in any way define or represent us. We are good ambassadors, law abiding citizens and therefore, we distance ourselves from those miscreants. We assure the security agencies of our full support and cooperation if the need arises.”
Not satisfied with the clarification of the Nigerian community and as a further belt tightening measure to screen those coming into the country, Dubai has updated its visa requirements by including three new conditions.
There was an initial rumour about the suspension of visa application to Nigerians which was denied by the Nigerian community. It was gathered that the visa was showing pending on the visa status portal which indicates it was neither approved, nor rejected.
But the fear of the Nigerian community was confirmed when the Dubai authorities imposed fresh visa requirements for applicants.
As seen from the updated visa portal, there are three new Nigerian requirements mandatory for all visa applicants to provide.
These requirements are to be scanned and uploaded in the visa portal as provided to enable the applicant complete and submit visa application online.
The three updated requirements are Hotel reservation/place of stay in UAE, six-month Bank Statement and return flight ticket. While the UAE did not state any reason for the new requirement, it is believed the decision was taken to control the influx of individuals with criminal intent into the country.
It was gathered that the development is already causing uneasy calm in the travel industry as many travellers scramble to meet the new requirements. This may ultimately reduce visitors to the country for those who are unable to meet the new requirements.
The new requirements have been greeted with mixed feelings from stakeholders with the majority saying the development was a lesson to Nigerians to imbibe the habit of doing the right thing in accordance with the laws of their host countries.
Our correspondent reports that Dubai is one of the most frequently visited countries for business and tourism by Nigerians. About 200,000 Nigerians averagely visit the country annually either for business or tourism.
Before now, many Nigerians enjoyed the privilege of travelling to Dubai with very relaxed requirements until some Nigerians began to abuse the near free entry status granted to them, according to analysts.
This, they noted, would further hurt some Nigerians with legitimate reasons for going to Dubai. Among those to be affected are Nigerians in search of jobs in the Arab country.
“This development is good and also will prevent some fraudulent people coming in. But the point now is, they should allow us that have a visa inside the country work before it expires, please, so that we can pay our taxes and live peacefully. Please beg on our behalf,” said a Nigerian in search of jobs in Dubai.
According to the Director of Research and Strategy, Zenith Travels, Mr Olumide Ohunayo, the UAE as a country can impose any requirement it deems necessary in the interest of her country and the citizens.
He said, “Every country has the right to introduce some consular requirements to protect their country and ensure that eligible tourists, visitors or business men are those who come into their country.
“The UAE has been very relaxed with their visa. It is the most relaxed of the Middle East countries. Unfortunately, we have not behaved well. We have abused it. At a time, they stopped single ladies from coming except you are 40 and above.
“I have no objection to it. It is their country. They need to do what they need to do to safeguard other tourists apart from Nigerians and ensure that their country is protected.”
President of NANTA, Mrs Susan Akporiaye, also blamed Nigerians for the new requirements imposed by Dubai, saying the UAE authorities must have changed its entry rules due to abuse of the visa process.
She said while the travel agents are not happy with the development, everybody must learn to live by it.
She said, “They must have their reason. It’s a diplomatic thing. There is nothing anybody can do about it. We don’t know why they did that. Maybe they are not comfortable with what many Nigerians are doing. Maybe they did it due to an increase in crimes by Nigerians.
“Before then, we learnt that there was a situation where a policeman was killed. I don’t think it’s just that one incident. Maybe it is a compilation of different incidents that have been going on and probably from their investigation (I have not confirmed that), it seems to always be the Nigerian community perpetrating it, according to them. We have not confirmed this though. Everything is according to them. They have not officially released any report to the Nigeria Police to say that this is the percentage of Nigerians committing crimes.
“But then again, it is a diplomatic thing. Every country has a right to do whatever they want to do and we cannot question them. Are we happy about it? No. We are not but there is nothing we can do about it. It is their country; they determine how people come into their country.
“Sad enough. It is a lesson to us too that when people give us easy access, we should not abuse it. If you abuse the easy access, it will be taken away from you and you cannot fault them. You cannot go to another man’s house and determine how the man should operate in his own house.
“It’s a lesson for all of us. And enough of even going to another man’s country. Why don’t we all sit down here and see how to make things better for ourselves? Running away to other people’s country and doing business or for holidays are two different things. I am not saying people should not travel to do business neither am I saying people should not travel for holidays. Because if it’s just business and holiday, we won’t be where we are now. Because if it’s business, you will come back. If it is a holiday, you will come back and there’s absolutely no reason why UAE would change their rules.”
Mrs Akporiaye advised Nigerians visiting Dubai to do the right thing to avoid a situation where the UAE would further tighten the requirements, saying for those with legitimate businesses to carry out in Dubai, submitting their six-month bank statement shouldn’t be a problem.
She said, “The problem is those that go in the name of business and holiday and they don’t come back. It is not only UAE but every other country.
“So, there’s really nothing much to say than to just respect their decision. It’s not going to be easy; everybody has to adjust. And for those that have legitimate things to go and do, it shouldn’t be a problem.”
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