British holidaymakers faced a chaotic start to the Easter travel season on Monday, as airlines cancelled scores of flights because of rising Covid-19 infections among staff.
British Airways and easyJet cancelled 120 flights to and from the UK between them on Monday, while rail links to France were disrupted by a broken down train in the Channel Tunnel.
This week marks the beginning of the first peak travel period since all UK Covid travel restrictions were removed, and travel industry bosses have celebrated surging demand for foreign holidays after two years of pandemic restrictions.
But there are also growing concerns that airports and airlines will be unable to handle the mass return of passengers after companies cut tens of thousands of jobs to help them survive the pandemic, particularly as infections soar.
EasyJet said it was “experiencing higher than usual levels of employee sickness”, and that it had brought in extra crew to address the issue.
“However, with the current levels of sickness we have also decided to make some cancellations in advance,” the airline said.
Sixty flights into and out of the UK have been cancelled, with most on routes where there are multiple flights a day to help minimise disruption.
British Airways also cancelled 60 flights on Monday, due to a combination of Covid absences and wider operational challenges as it tries to ramp up its flight schedules with fewer staff. Around 10 of the cancellations were directly due to Covid.
The airline has cancelled flights on high frequency routes and used larger aircraft where it can, mitigating some of the impact of the disruption.
“While the vast majority of our flights continue to operate as planned, as a precaution we’ve slightly reduced our schedule between now and the end of May as we ramp back up,” the airline said.
BA fired around 10,000 staff in 2020 as the airline industry was plunged into crisis, and has outlined plans to rehire around 3,000 of them.
The UK has been hit by record-high infection rates in recent weeks due to a Covid resurgence driven by the highly infectious Omicron BA.2 sub-variant. In the week to March 26, 4.9mn Britons had Covid-19, the highest level recorded at any point during the pandemic, according to the Office for National Statistics.
“We have an unprecedented level of mild illness at the moment and that’s obviously quite disruptive for the workforce,” said Andrew Hayward, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at University College London. “I don’t think anybody is going to escape infection ultimately — whether they’ve been vaccinated or not. We could get infected every year or every few years — either way that means more sick days.”
Some 2.5 per cent of workers in the transport sector were self-isolating on March 19, according to the ONS, higher than the peak of just above 2 per cent during the first Omicron wave in late January.
Separately, services on the Eurotunnel rail link between England and France were facing delays of up to three hours on Monday morning, because of an earlier faulty train in the Channel Tunnel.
The Airport Operators Association on Friday warned that operations could face “some strain” in the coming months, and told passengers to expect longer queues at peak travel times.
Karen Dee, the lobby group’s chief executive, blamed “a very competitive labour market” and delays in government security background checks on new staff.
“Airports have been preparing for this for some time, but at peak times passengers may not have the experience they are used to,” Dee said.