Anger at Heathrow as Johnson’s French U-Turn Adds to Grief
(Bloomberg) -- London’s Heathrow airport was thronged with travelers Monday as the U.K. eased travel curbs -- but pre-holiday enthusiasm was replaced with anger for some after last-minute rule changes added unexpected complications to their trip.
While fully vaccinated tourists headed for the Mediterranean were cheered by the removal of quarantine requirements on their return, people bound for France hit out at a decision late Friday that means they’ll still need to self-isolate.
Madeline Russell, a London-based dentist flying to the southern French city of Toulouse to visit her mother, said she was skeptical that the spread of the beta variant of Covid-19 was the sole motivation for reinstating the quarantine, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has maintained.
“There are obviously underlying political reasons why they singled out France,” Russell said before boarding a British Airways flight with her husband and baby. “What’s most frustrating is that they chop and change. They announce something then rapidly change tune so quickly.”
The U.K. created a new “amber plus” category in its traffic-light border system that makes it harder to travel to France, the only country with that designation. The decision prompted outrage from travel groups and sent shares of airline companies plummeting on Monday. French officials said the move wasn’t based on science.
Heathrow, Europe’s busiest hub before the coronavirus hit, said passenger numbers remained steady after picking up last week, though without the six-hour lines for incoming travelers seen then. Immigration Services Union spokeswoman Lucy Moreton reported no major disruption at the U.K. border, with a peak wait of two hours, about standard for the airport amid checks on the testing and vaccination status of arrivals.
The Bloomberg EMEA Airlines Index slid 5.7%, the most since in 10 months, to the lowest point since January. The carnage hit carriers focused on the U.K. leisure trade, including EasyJet Plc, its larger Irish rival Ryanair Holdings Plc, and package holiday giant TUI AG.
British Airways owner IAG SA fell 5.2%, while rival Air France-KLM lost 2.9%, as the rising number of Covid-19 cases in the U.S. dimmed hopes for a renewal of transatlantic links.
Closely held Heathrow on Monday asked holders of four Heathrow Finance-issued bonds to amend covenants amid the ongoing passenger-traffic slump. The airport had first secured looser terms on the debt a year earlier, before the coronavirus crisis proved its staying power.
At London Luton airport, the home base of EasyJet, passenger numbers are still at 25% or less of pre-pandemic levels, despite a marginal increase over the past week.
Tit for Tat?
The French and British governments have sparred on a number of fronts since the U.K.’s exit from the European Union took effect at the start of the year, including fishing rights and Northern Ireland. There has been press speculation that restrictions on Britons traveling into the EU may have factored into the creation of the amber plus category.
The new rule for France drew an angry response from tourism bodies and airlines over the weekend, with International Air Transport Association Director General Willie Walsh saying Britain had “no coherent policy on international travel.”
“The measure that was taken by the U.K. isn’t completely grounded in science,” France’s European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune said in an RMC radio interview. France is using “scientific and health criteria” that allows vaccinated people from Britain to enter without quarantine, while those who aren’t must self-isolate, he said.
While some Heathrow passengers expressed frustration at the rapidly changing travel rules, others were waiting to board in the knowledge that they’d no longer face time cooped up at home on their return from medium-risk destinations on the Britain’s so-called amber list.
Peter Phillips, an administrator at University College London, booked a holiday with his wife and daughters on the Greek island of Rhodes last December and said the removal of quarantines for fully vaccinated travelers came as a relief after months of concern about whether they’d get to fly, and on what terms.
“The lead-up has been stressful with cases going up,” he said. “You wonder if you’re doing the right thing. We want to be as safe as possible as we are both double vaccinated. It feels like it is worth the risk.”
The family booked a separate break on England’s bracing North Sea coast in case their journey to Greece became impossible.
In the arrivals hall of Heathrow’s Terminal 5, some passengers expressed surprise at how quickly they were processed. Ed Horrocks, flying in from Chicago for a wedding in the U.K., used a regular line rather than an electronic gate and said there were fewer people than he’d expected.
But at Terminal 2, passengers said the wait still seemed excessive. Annie Wright, who flew in from Newark, New Jersey, on a leisure visit, said she stood in a “massive line” for two hours, with the holdup compounded by problems with her mask at an e-gate.
The U.K. also switched its position on another major holiday market, Spain’s Balearic Islands, last week, moving them to amber status from green amid concern about a surge in the delta variant of Covid-19 in resorts popular with younger people who may not have had the jab.
The changes suggest that even people flying out now may not be guaranteed a quarantine-free return, with the moves stoking concerns about the status of other amber-list locations.
Dentist Russell said that the u-turn on France will mean other colleagues have to cover for her, and that the family has spent hundreds of pounds on coronavirus tests that are now applicable to their situation.
“There are financial implications, work implications,” she said. “It’s a bitter pill to swallow.”
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