EasyJet wants to close three of its airport bases, Stansted, Newcastle and Southend, with the loss of hundreds of jobs.
Both Stansted and Newcastle were established in the late 1990s by Go, the British Airways low-cost offshoot that was later acquired by easyJet.
Britain’s biggest budget airline had more recently moved into Southend airport, its second base in Essex after Stansted. The airport has been expanded in the past few years to act as something of an overspill facility while slots at other London airports were scarce.
But the collapse in demand caused by the coronavirus crisis has led easyJet to predict that “levels of market demand seen in 2019 are not likely to be reached again until 2023”.
The airline is cutting staff numbers by up to 30 per cent, and has already said it will “optimise its network and bases as a result of the pandemic”.
The three airports would remain part of easyJet’s route network, but with flights originating at other European bases.
Johan Lundgren, the chief executive of easyJet, said: “These are very difficult proposals to put forward in what is an unprecedented and difficult time for the airline and the industry as a whole.
“We are focused on doing what is right for the company and its long term health and success so we can protect jobs going forward.
“These proposals are no reflection on our people at Stansted, Southend and Newcastle, who have all worked tirelessly and have been fully committed to providing great service for our customers.”
The airline currently has 11 UK bases.
The closures appear to reflect a strategy of retreating from airports where easyJet faces intense competition from another low-cost airline. Ryanair is dominant at Stansted airport, and also has a presence at Southend.
At Newcastle airport, Jet2 has expanded to serve 45 destinations.
The British Airline Pilots’ Association (Balpa) says 727 of easyJet’s 2,100 UK pilots are at risk.
Brian Strutton, the general secretary of the pilots’ union, said: “We know that aviation is in the midst of the Covid crisis and we had been expecting easyJet to make an announcement of temporary measures to help the airline through to recovery.
“This is more evidence that aviation in the UK is caught in a death spiral of despair and individual airlines are flailing around without direction.”
The news came as the government said the announcement on ending its “no foreign holiday” policy, by allowing overseas travel to a list of approved destinations, will now be made on Thursday – just four days before it takes effect.