On Thursday, CBS News ran a story with the headline ‘Airlines that dropped mask requirements are now suffering staff shortages due to COVID-19’. The article went on to claim that airlines that have “ditched” mask rules were now being forced to cancel hundreds of flights as they grappled with Coronavirus-related staffing shortages.
The story quoted Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and health economist at Harvard Chan School of Public Health who has called the correlation between the mask mandate (or lack thereof) and the ensuing mass flight cancellations as “so damn predictable”.
Dr. Feigl-Ding warns that should U.S. airlines be allowed to drop mask rules when the federal mask mandate lapses then it could “backfire in many ways”.
To back up his warnings, Dr. Feigl-Ding shared a video of crowds of passengers at Heathrow Airport. “In case anyone thinks I’m exaggerating about UK airlines — here is the video of the madness at Heathrow Airport alone. This shit show is hitting the fan,” he warned.
The current situation warrants some further investigation and a little perspective.
So far, at least, we only know of the one airline that has dropped masking rules and gone on to face disruption due to staff sickness. That airline is the low-cost carrier easyJet and it’s worth mentioning that masking rules have only been dropped on a small number of routes.
The airline said it had been forced to cancel a small percentage of its overall schedule. “As a result of the current high rates of Covid infections across Europe, like all businesses easyJet is experiencing higher than usual levels of employee sickness,” the airline said in a statement.
In comparison, Jet2 and Norwegian have completely dropped inflight mask requirements but haven’t experienced significant disruption as a result of staff sickness. The British offshoot of TUI Airways, as well as the likes of SAS, KLM and SWISS, are also faring okay despite dropping masking rules on the majority of flights.
British Airways, however, has been responsible for a lot of disruption at Heathrow Airport over the last few weeks but the airline says this is down to a bottleneck in recruiting new staff and isn’t connected to elevated levels of staff sickness.
Like easyJet, masking rules at British Airways have only been relaxed on a handful of routes so any direct correlation is difficult to judge.
In fact, the scenes of chaos at airports across the UK have been linked to difficulties in hiring enough staff to cope with the surge in travel demand. Similar scenes played out at Sydney Airport in Australia on Thursday and Friday where masking rules remain in force.
It’s certainly true to say that Coronavirus infection levels are very high in the UK and across many parts of Europe. Infection levels have risen in line with restrictions, including indoor mask mandates, being eased or removed altogether.
It’s therefore nearly impossible to say whether staff sickness is on the rise because airlines dropped masking rules or because infections levels are so high throughout society.
Sadly, strict inflight masking rules haven’t been able to stop flight chaos in the United States. The federal mask mandate has been in force for more than a year and yet it didn’t stop surging rates of staff sickness when Omicron took hold.
Carriers including JetBlue and United were forced to proactively cancel hundreds of flights due to staff sickness even though employee masking rules were in force.
The U.S. is likely to see another spike in COVID infections in the coming weeks and airlines might not be able to stop rising levels of staff sickness even if they keep masking rules in place.
EasyJet has managed to reduce its cancellations to just 1 per cent of its planned schedule on Friday according to data supplied by Flight Aware. The airline has simply brought rostered more crew on standby to cover for last minute sickness.
Whatever your opinion on the efficacy of face masks, one has to accept that an airplane isn’t the only place where someone might get infected. If masking isn’t required in any other busy public setting or workplace, it becomes increasingly difficult to justify the need on an airplane.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.