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Holidaymakers in the UK face travel chaos as Covid forces flight cancellations

British holidaymakers faced a chaotic start to the Easter travel season on Monday as airlines canceled scores of flights amid rising Covid-19 infections among staff.

British Airways and easyJet canceled 120 flights to and from the UK on Monday, while rail services to France were disrupted by a broken train in the Channel Tunnel.

This week marks the start of the first peak travel season since all UK Covid travel restrictions were lifted, and travel industry chiefs have celebrated rising demand for holidays abroad after two years of pandemic restrictions.

But there are also growing concerns that airports and airlines will not be able to handle the mass return of passengers after companies cut tens of thousands of jobs to help them survive the pandemic, especially amid the rise in infections.

EasyJet said it had “higher levels of employee illness than usual” and it had deployed extra crew members to address the problem.

“However, given the current sickness rate, we have also decided to make some cancellations in advance,” the airline said.

Sixty flights to and from the UK have been cancelled, most on routes that have multiple flights a day, to minimize disruption.

British Airways also canceled 60 flights on Monday due to a combination of Covid absences and greater operational challenges as it seeks to increase its flight schedules with fewer staff. Around 10 of the cancellations were directly due to Covid.

The airline has canceled flights on busy routes and deployed larger aircraft where possible to mitigate some of the impact of the disruption.

“While the vast majority of our flights continue to operate as planned, as a precaution we have slightly trimmed our flight schedule until the end of May while we ramp back up,” the airline said.

BA laid off around 10,000 employees in 2020 as the airline industry hit a crisis and outlined plans to reinstate around 3,000 of them.

The UK has been hit by record high infection rates in recent weeks, driven by a resurgence in Covid caused by the highly infectious subvariant Omicron BA.2. In the week ending March 26, 4.9 million Britons had Covid-19, the highest level ever recorded during the pandemic, according to the Office for National Statistics.

“We are currently having an unprecedented level of mild illness and this is obviously quite disruptive for the workforce,” said Andrew Hayward, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at University College London. “I don’t think anyone will ultimately escape infection – whether they’ve been vaccinated or not. We could get infected every year or every few years – either way, that means more sick days.”

According to the ONS, around 2.5 per cent of workers in the transport sector were in self-isolation as of March 19, more than the peak of just over 2 per cent during the first Omicron wave in late January.

Separately, services on the Eurotunnel rail link between England and France faced delays of up to three hours on Monday morning due to an earlier faulty train in the Channel Tunnel.

The Airport Operators Association warned on Friday that operations could face “some strain” in the coming months and urged passengers to expect longer queues at peak times.

Karen Dee, the executive director of the lobby group, blamed “a very competitive job market” and delays in the government’s security background checks on new employees.

“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.

https://www.ft.com/content/3b4b98e5-2403-475e-90b5-704f28037bf1 Holidaymakers in the UK face travel chaos as Covid forces flight cancellations

Adam Bradshaw

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