Thousands face travel chaos over Christmas as Covid causes staff shortages

·4-min read
A British Airways  plane  (PA Archive)
A British Airways plane (PA Archive)

Thousands of people could face travel chaos over Christmas as rail firms and airlines blame coronavirus-related staff shortages for widespread cancellations.

Many operators are running reduced timetables due to workers being off sick or isolating as Omicron surges across the UK.

At least 21 British Airways flights from Heathrow were axed on Sunday and Monday as the airline struggled to grapple with foggy conditions and staff absences.

The shortages have also resulted in long lines at border control and reports of a build-up of unclaimed baggage left next to conveyor belts.

British Airways apologised to customers for the disruption which it blamed on adverse weather conditions as well as staff sickness.

Meanwhile, train operator CrossCountry said it expects “widespread disruption” to its service over the coming week.

Dozens of trains are being cancelled by the company each day and many others have fewer carriages than usual.

Cancellations have been made on several routes including Manchester to Bournemouth via Birmingham, Bristol to Paignton, Devon, Cardiff to Nottingham and Birmingham to Stanstead Airport.

Avanti West Coast warned passengers there may be cancellations due to shortages caused by Covid.

The firm told passengers: “The pandemic is unfortunately resulting in staff shortages.

“We’re doing everything we can to run our full timetable but there may be some short-notice cancellations.”

The firm will remove peak ticket restrictions between Thursday and January 3 in a bid to boost demand.

Govia Thameslink Railway said a train crew shortage means there will be a reduced service across the Southern, Thameslink and Great Northern network until the end of the day on Christmas Eve.

Greater Anglia said it has removed trains from its timetables due to falling passenger numbers “as people follow advice to work from home”.

It added: “We also have to plan for our staff being affected by the Omicron variant, especially as we’re already starting to see the early signs of its impact, to ensure we can continue to provide a reliable service.”

Northern is operating amended timetables due to “Covid and crew unavailability and major engineering works”.

Disruption is expected to continue until at least January 3.

ScotRail is running an amended service on several routes until further notice due to Covid-19 related illness.

TransPennine Express said delays and short-notice cancellations over the next fortnight are due to “a lack of available staff caused by industrial relations issues”.

A spokesman for British Airways said: “We’ve apologised to customers whose flights were cancelled earlier this week due to operational constraints. Our teams are worked extremely hard to get our customers rebooked and on their way as quickly as possible.”

A spokeswoman for the Rail Delivery Group, which represents train operators, said: “Like everyone else, our staff are susceptible to the virus but as we showed last year during the pandemic, we will ensure that key workers can get to where they need to be.

“We aren’t able to run every train as planned at the moment but we know people want confidence that their train is going to turn up so we will be working hard to give clear, accurate and timely information and people should check before they travel.”

Anthony Smith, chief executive of independent watchdog Transport Focus, said: “It’s better for some services to be temporarily withdrawn on a planned basis than to have chaotic last-minute cancellations.

“These are harder for passengers to deal with and more likely to lead to overcrowding. Passengers need clear, reliable information to plan their journeys. Anyone who has already bought tickets must be told and offered alternatives or their money back.”

Latest preliminary figures from the Department for Transport show demand for trains was at 60% of pre-pandemic levels on December 9.

Passenger numbers have been hit by the advice to work from home but are likely to increase this week as people make festive trips.

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