Airlines that dropped mask requirements now face staff shortages due to COVID-19

Overseas airlines have to cancel hundreds of flights as they struggle with coronavirus-related staff shortages weeks after they repealed rules requiring passengers and staff to mask in the air.

The disruptions also come as the CEOs of leading US airlines urge the Biden administration roll back a federal rule require masks to be worn in the air.

Masks have not been mandatory on flights operated by budget-friendly Swiss airline EasyJet since March 27, the airline said in a statement. The move came after the UK lifted all travel restrictions earlier in March.

“This welcome move from the UK Government marks a return to truly restriction-free flying to and from the UK, giving an extra boost to travel this Easter. We look ahead to what we expect to be a strong summer for EasyJet, with plans to return to flying levels close to 2019. We can’t wait to welcome more customers back on board,” EasyJet CEO Johan Lundgren said in a statement at the time.

Between March 28 and April 3, EasyJet canceled 202 of its 3,517 flights scheduled to depart from the UK, according to data provided to CBS MoneyWatch from Cirium, an aviation analytics company. By comparison, the airline canceled zero flights departing from the UK during the same period in 2019, before the pandemic.

An EasyJet spokesperson attributed the increase in canceled flights to “higher-than-normal staff absenteeism” due to a recent surge in COVID-19 cases across Europe.

“As a result, we have implemented preventive cancellations so that customers can be notified of the trip in advance and easily transfer to alternative flights,” the spokesperson said in a statement to CBS MoneyWatch.

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According to Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and health economist at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, such flight cancellations were virtually guaranteed once passengers and crew members took off their masks.

“So damn predictable – UK government drops restrictions, airlines like @easyJet drop masks… and less than 2 weeks later… massive spike in pilots and flight attendants sick with #COVID19 unable to work, and 120 flights cancelled! Airline CEOs asked for this,” he said on Twitter.

A similar move by US airlines “would backfire in many ways,” Feigl-Ding told CBS MoneyWatch. He thinks more passengers would be hesitant to fly if airlines abolish mask rules. “If there are no masks, that actually makes people more concerned about making the trip. It could make more people stay at home and bite the airlines,” he said.

United Airlines — which canceled hundreds of flights in December due to an overwhelming number of crew members contracting COVID-19 during a holiday wave of its Omicron variant — said it is currently experiencing no disruptions related to crew contamination with COVID-19.

Still, US airlines are bracing for the same wave of COVID-19 cases that Europe is experiencing and could see major disruptions to schedules if the virus wipes out a large number of crew members in the coming weeks.

“There’s a risk that we’ll see some of that in North America and it all depends on the number of cases,” said Rob Morris, head of Ascend by Cirium, an airline analytics and consulting firm. “But it will be a relatively short term as airlines will adjust their capacity to manage demand and protect their network integrity.”

While staff shortages due to rising COVID-19 numbers in Europe are disrupting other sectors, they are particularly acute in the aviation industry.

“It’s very clear that the airline industry is particularly vulnerable, and this has more of an effect on society than, say, a restaurant closure would,” Feigl-Ding said. “This is critical infrastructure and these are essential workers, and we are putting our economy at risk. Stopping COVID is good for our economy, ‘letting it tear’ is the exact opposite.”

Other airlines that have dropped the mask rules are also canceling more flights than usual. On flights operated by London, England-based airline British Airways, masks have been optional for staff and passengers since March 16. The airline made the announcement Twitter by sharing a video of a flight attendant enthusiastically tearing off a surgical mask.

According to Cirium, British Airways canceled 393 of the 2,405 flights scheduled to depart from the UK between March 28 and April 3.

A British Airways spokesperson said only a small proportion of recently canceled flights have been canceled due to COVID-19. The spokesman said the airline canceled three flights at the last minute on Tuesday due to staff who tested positive for the disease, adding that some cancellations were the result of rebuilding difficulties “operations while managing the ongoing impact of COVID”.

“So while the vast majority of our flights continue to operate as planned, as a precaution we have cut our schedule slightly between now and the end of May as we bounce back,” the spokesperson said.

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