Delays in processing security checks for new airline crew are to blame for flight cancellation chaos at British airports, easyJet's boss has said.
Heathrow Airport, one of Europe's busiest, is offering bonuses to employees who have been drafted from across the UK to manage long queues and delays caused by staff shortages.
EasyJet chief executive Johan Lundgren said the airline is waiting for the UK's Department for Transport (DfT) to allow about 100 new members of staff to start work.
Last week the company was forced to axe dozens of flights as it struggled to cope with a high level of absences linked to Covid-19 and problems with e-gate passport checkpoints.
It is believed up to 20,000 passengers have been forced to cancel or alter their Easter plans due to the travel disruption.
Mr Lundgren said “we don’t have a shortage of crew” despite admitting that staff sicknesses were now double the typical level.
He told reporters: “This is driven by a spike and a big increase in Covid infections that has driven crew absence levels to double the normal rate.
“We were having in some cases up to 20 per cent of absence, and you wouldn’t expect any airline at any point in time to be able to cover that.”
Mr Lundgren, who joined the budget airline in 2017, said security checks being processed for new recruits have contributed to the number of flights being delayed in recent days.
There is a three-week delay getting government security clearance for more than 100 cabin crew, he said, adding that there would have been fewer cancellations if they had been delivered on time.
He went on: “I understand the DfT and the ministers are doing what they can to accelerate and speed this up — which we find very constructive — but it definitely has had an impact.”
EasyJet cancelled at least 23 flights to or from Gatwick on Tuesday, affecting routes between the airport and locations such as Berlin, Milan, Valencia and Venice.
The Luton-based airline has reported a rebound in holiday bookings exceeding pre-pandemic levels. It said more bookings were made during the past six weeks than in the same period in 2019.
Heathrow announced that March was its busiest month since the start of the pandemic, with nearly 4.2 million passengers processed.
EasyJet said the UK’s removal of its coronavirus travel restrictions on January 24 sparked a “strong and sustained recovery” resulting in the proportion of bookings between the UK and the European Union being “broadly equal”.
This is compared with a 70:30 split in favour of the EU last year when the UK imposed stricter conditions on travellers.
The low-cost airline operated at 80 per cent of 2019 capacity in the first three months of 2022.
It expects to make a loss before tax in the range of £535 million ($696.8m) to £565 million for the six months to the end of March.
This marks a reduction in its losses compared with the same period 12 months earlier, and is “ahead of market expectations”, according to easyJet.
It attributed this to improved trading and “self-help” measures such as optimising its network, strong sales of ancillary products and a “continued cost focus”.
Commenting on the airline’s record during the first three months of 2022, Mr Lundgren said: “EasyJet’s performance in the second quarter has been driven by improved trading following the UK government’s decision to relax testing restrictions with an extra boost from self-help measures which saw us outperform market expectations.
“Since travel restrictions were removed, easyJet has seen a strong recovery in trading which has been sustained, resulting in a positive outlook for Easter and beyond, with daily booking volumes for the summer currently tracking ahead of those at the same time in FY19.
“We remain confident in our plans which will see us reaching near 2019 flying levels for this summer and emerge as one of the winners in the recovery.”
EasyJet said it has flown 94 per cent of its planned schedule in the last seven days, with around 1,500 daily flights.
This is despite “the recent increase in the number of crew testing positive for Covid-19, together with normal operational disruption such as weather and ATC [air traffic control] delays”, the airline said.
“We have proactively managed this in advance by making pre-emptive cancellations as early as possible, enabling the majority of our customers to rebook on to flights departing the same day.”