Airlines that dropped the mask requirement are now suffering from staff shortages due to COVID-19

Overseas airlines have had to cancel hundreds of flights while struggling Coronavirus-related staff shortages weeks after they abandoned rules requiring passengers and staff to dress up in the air.

The disruptions also come as CEOs of top US airlines are pushing the Biden administration reverse a federal rule Wearing masks in the sky is required.

Masks have not been required 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 in early March.

“This welcome move by the UK Government marks a return to truly unrestricted flying to and from the UK and gives Easter travel an extra boost. As we look ahead to what is expected to be a strong summer for EasyJet, we can’t wait to welcome more customers back on board,” said EasyJet CEO Johan Lundgren 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 by Cirium, an aeronautics analysis firm. In comparison, the airline canceled zero flights from the UK during the same period in 2019, before the pandemic.

An EasyJet spokesman attributed the spike in canceled flights to “above average staff sick leave” stemming from a recent spike in COVID-19 cases across Europe.

“As a result, we have implemented pre-emptive cancellations so customers are notified before travel and can easily transfer to alternative flights,” the spokesman 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, once passengers and crew removed their masks, such flight cancellations were all but guaranteed.

“So bloody predictable – the UK government is dropping restrictions, airlines like @easyJet are dropping masks… and less than two weeks later… a huge surge in pilots and flight attendants being ill and unable to work due to #COVID19 and 120 flights cancelled! Airline CEOs have asked for it,” he said on Twitter.

A similar move by US airlines “would backfire in many ways,” Feigl-Ding told CBS MoneyWatch. He believes more passengers would be reluctant to fly if airlines lifted mask rules. “If there are no masks, that actually makes people more worried about making the journey. It could result in more people staying at home and biting the airlines,” he said.

United Airlines — which scrapped hundreds of flights in December because an overwhelming number of crew members fell ill during a vacation wave of Omicron variant COVID-19 — said there are currently no disruptions related to crew members becoming infected with COVID-19.

Still, airlines in the US are bracing for the same spike in COVID-19 cases that Europe is experiencing and could lead to major flight schedule disruptions if the virus wipes out significant numbers of crew members in the coming weeks.

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

Although staffing shortages related to rising COVID-19 rates in Europe are disrupting other sectors, they are particularly acute in the aviation industry.

“It is very clear that the airline industry is particularly vulnerable and this is creating a cascading effect on society, more so than, say, a restaurant closure,” 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 go’ is the exact opposite.”

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

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

A British Airways spokesman said only a small proportion of recently canceled flights have been canceled due to COVID-19. The spokesman said the airline canceled three last-minute flights on Tuesday because staff tested positive for the disease, adding that some of the cancellations were due to issues related to rebuilding “operations while coping with the ongoing effects of COVID”.

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

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