EasyJet flights return amid concerns over physical distancing

EasyJet’s first flight in 11 weeks took off on Monday morning, boosting the airline’s hopes for survival but leaving some passengers concerned at a lack of physical distancing at 35,000 feet.

Major job cuts announced so far

The coronavirus lockdown has virtually halted international travel and tourism, hitting airlines and other travel companies, aerospace and auto manufacturers and oil companies hard.

As these businesses adjust to dramatically reduced revenue projections, job losses are starting to mount alarmingly. More than 40,000 redundancies have already been announced across these sectors, with more than 10,000 likely to be in the UK.

The jet-engine manufacturer has confirmed that 3,000 job cuts, of a planned 9,000 worldwide, will be made in the UK. Rolls-Royce will make the first round of redundancies through a voluntary programme, with about 1,500 posts being lost at its headquarters in Derby, as well as 700 redundancies in Inchinnan, near Glasgow, another 200 at its Barnoldswick site in Lancashire and 175 in Solihull, Warwickshire.

The luxury carmaker intends to shrink its workforce by almost a quarter, slashing 1,000 roles through a voluntary redundancy scheme. The majority of Bentley’s 4,200 workers are based in Crewe, Cheshire.

Aston Martin Lagonda
The Warwickshire-based luxury car manufacturer has also announced 500 redundancies.  

The oil company plans to make 10,000 people redundant worldwide, including an estimated 2,000 in the UK, by the end of the year. The BP chief executive, Bernard Looney, said the majority of people affected would be those in office-based jobs, including at the most senior levels. BP said it would reduce the number of group leaders by a third, and protect the “frontline” of the company, in its operations.

British Airways
The UK flag carrier is holding consultations to make up to 12,000 of its staff redundant, a reduction of one in four jobs at the airline. BA intends to cut roles among its cabin crew, pilots and ground staff, while significantly reducing its operations at Gatwick airport.

Virgin Atlantic
Richard Branson’s airline is to cut more than 3,000 jobs, more than a third of its workforce, and will shut its operations at Gatwick.

The airline has announced plans to cut 4,500 employees, or 30% of its workforce.

The Irish airline intends to slash 3,000 roles and reduce staff pay by up to a fifth.

P&O Ferries
The shipping firm intends to cut more than a quarter of its workforce, a loss of 1,100 jobs. The company, which operates passenger ferries between Dover and Calais, and across the Irish Sea, as well as Hull to Rotterdam and Zeebrugge, will initially offer employees voluntary redundancy.

The owner of British Gas is to slash 5,000 jobs, saying it was looking to cut costs by simplifying its business structure. The company is removing three layers of management, with more than half of the job losses falling on leadership roles, including half its 40-strong senior team.

Johnson Matthey
A major supplier of material for catalytic converters in cars, Johnson Matthey announced plans to make 2,500 redundancies worldwide, or 17% of its total workforce. The group said it was the result of the pandemic and the uncertain outlook for the car industry.

Heathrow Airport
Voluntary redundancy has been offered to all of its 7,000 direct employees after coronavirus wiped out its passenger traffic.

The airline, which is cutting 4,500 jobs and has borrowed £600m from the government’s emergency coronavirus fund, returned to the skies with a flight from London Gatwick to Glasgow. The carrier will operate just over 300 flights this week, mainly domestic departures from eight UK airports, and a total of 22 within the EU. The total represents a fraction of its previous schedules before coronavirus grounded most flying in late March.

EasyJet’s chief executive, Johan Lundgren, sought to reassure passengers that flying is safe despite the threat of coronavirus. “The aircraft is being disinfected every 24 hours, the air is replaced every three to four minutes,” he said. He also warned that the airport experience “won’t be the same as before the virus”.

In Gatwick’s North Terminal, reopened for the occasion, the only sign of life amid the closed shops and upturned Wetherspoons furniture in the departure lounge was a solitary branch of Boots, where the cashier stood behind a plastic screen. In security, the queues and tray points were spaced apart, while virtually all the usual airport procedures up to and through the boarding gate were contactless and distanced, with passes being scanned from phones.

Yet on board the plane for Glasgow, the experience appeared no different from a pre-pandemic flight, barring the facemasks and the lack of drinks or food on sale. While Lundgren had previously talked of sealing off middle seats, most passengers were rubbing shoulders in full rows in the centre of the plane for take-off.

Dr Michael Fonso, EasyJet’s chief medical adviser, said: “Social distancing is simply not practical on a plane.”

According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the risks of spreading coronavirus on an aircraft are low, Fonso said. They have been reduced by new measures, including more intense daily cleaning of surfaces with stronger disinfectant, and asking ground crew to refer anyone displaying symptoms before boarding.

“It’s all about layered measures,” he said. “Because you are not facing each other, it’s safer. The vertical airflow on the plane reduces the risk. Wearing a mask alone is not enough, but with those good practices and advise by government – hand-sanitising, not touching our face – I am confident it is safe to fly.”

The onboard safety announcement was briefly modified with reference to Covid-19, stressing the need for a mask and handwashing, adding: “There is plenty of soap.” A crew member on the PA system later clarified: “In the unlikely event you do need to use an oxygen mask, please do remove your face covering first.”

Inflight magazines have been deemed a risk and have gone, while the laminated safety card remains but is now wiped daily, said EasyJet.

Among the few paying passengers to join the plane for the return flight was Dave Hutchison, from Ayr, who was a regular weekly commuter to London pre-lockdown. He restarted work as a construction site manager again in May but won’t be regularly travelling on this 9.10am flight. “It’s too late in the morning for me,” he said.

Hutchison said he rigorously enforces distancing in his part of the workplace, and avoids public transport when in London in favour of an electric scooter. Asked about the lack of physical distancing on board, he said: “I’m a bit concerned, to be honest.”

Landing at Gatwick, a woman and her daughter in homemade masks described it as a “strange journey – horrible really, it’s so empty in the airports. But you can’t really socially distance on a plane.”

Fonso said that “airlines were never actually told not to fly” and the industry regulator, the European Union Safety Agency (Easa), has introduced new guidelines. Lundgren said demand was returning, albeit dampened by quarantine rules that EasyJet, BA and Ryanair are challenging in court. Asked if people will get a summer holiday, he said: “I hope so.”



The return of easyJet on a domestic route that is also accessible by train brought a warning from a leading environmental group, which pointed to easyJet’s use of the Treasury and Bank of England’s emergency coronavirus fund. John Sauven, director of Greenpeace UK, said the airline had lobbied against green taxes to repair climate damage and was now “taking to the air again with a no-strings £600m loan”.

“It’s time the government introduced a frequent flyer levy as part of a green recovery programme,” he said.

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