With the next stage of the U.K. government’s expected easing of restrictions due to come into effect on 17 May, the commercial airline industry is anticipating the recommencement of international travel for U.K. citizens and residents. A recently announced ‘traffic light (signal)’ system of various levels of requirements upon return for travelers there is still no clarity on which countries U.K. tourists can travel to and which will be designated ‘red’, ‘amber’ or ‘green’. Confirmation of the first group of countries on the ‘green’ list is expected as early as the end of next week.
With over 64 percent of those over the age of 18 have received their first vaccination jab and 25 percent receiving both injections, industry bodies are optimistic that pent-up passenger demand and confidence will convert to bookings over the summer. Thomas Cook chief executive Alan French told Sky News: “I’m confident that we will see travel opening up on 17 May – it was predicated on a number of things happening, most of which have happened. The exact mechanism of freeing that up, I think, remains to be seen and I would expect the government to be able to move quite quickly to be able to tell us how we will be able to unlock.”
However as Mr. French alluded to there are still a significant number of uncertainties and concerns to be addressed. Tim Alderslade, CEO of Airlines UK, the industry body representing UK-registered carriers, expressed concerns at the time of the announcement of the government’s traffic light system. “This does not represent a reopening of travel as promised by Ministers, and the insistence on expensive and unnecessary PCR testing rather than rapid testing – even for low-risk countries – will pose an unsustainable burden on passengers, making travel unviable and unaffordable for many people,” he said.
Concerns about the logistical implications of the recommencement of passenger travel from the U.K. have been raised by the chief executive of Heathrow Airport, John Holland-Kaye. The U.K.’s only hub airport, and prior to the CoVid-19 pandemic the busiest airport in Europe, has seen significant processing delays by Border Force staff in recent weeks with reports of arriving passengers remaining in queues for up to 7 hours. Of particular concern is that Heathrow is seeing significantly reduced passenger numbers so any increases in numbers will require substantial resources to maintain the current Border Force practice of checking the paperwork of every arriving passenger.
Mr. Holland-Kaye was reported in The Guardian on Thursday as saying: “The Home Office has to get a grip of Border Force and make sure that doesn’t become the bottleneck for the whole economic recovery. We’ve had to turn away flights because of congestion in immigration. If they struggle with less than 10% of normal volumes they are going to have to do something very different to be ready for 17 May.”
The increased complexity of processing passengers has not only resulted in delays but also fines imposed on airlines for not ensuring arriving passengers comply with U.K. regulations. Since 11 February the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has issued 630 fines to airlines for failing to ensure that arriving passengers have proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken no more than 3 days before departure and a completed passenger locator form (PLF).
CAA regulations state: “Carriers are obliged to ensure passengers have these documents before they arrive in England and can face fines of £2,000 for each passenger they carry who does not have a valid Pre-Departure Test Certificate, and £2,000 for each passenger who does not have a completed PLF (including with the correct test booking reference number for managed quarantine or mandatory testing).” To minimize the risk of increasing numbers of fines when travel restarts, industry bodies are calling for the acceptance of so-called ‘CoVid Passports’ to eliminate the need for testing and isolation for those who have been fully vaccinated.