Brits Finally Traveling Again Means Long Lines and Costly Tests

The U.K. government’s decision to loosen border rules frees Britons to feed their pent-up appetite for leisure travel. But getting to a sun spot and back this summer will be neither easy nor particularly cheap.

The new policy that takes effect on May 17 lists just a handful of destinations -- including Portugal, Israel and Singapore -- as green in the so-called traffic-light system. For now, Greece and Spain are excluded, and most of the dozen deemed safe aren’t yet accepting visitors.

While passengers returning from green-lit places won’t be required to quarantine, they’ll still be subject to expensive Covid-19 tests that airlines have warned could put the cost of a summer vacation out of reach for many U.K. families on a budget.

For those who do decide to pack their beach towels and snorkel masks for a foreign trip, a major inconvenience awaits. Even with passenger traffic running more than 90% below normal levels, health checks at London Heathrow airport have led to border lines lasting more than six hours. Home Office officials acknowledge wait times will be longer than usual this summer, and while there are plans to speed the process, they won’t be fully implemented until later this year.

Brits Finally Traveling Again Means Long Lines and Costly Tests

“The traffic light system will make travel easier but it won’t make it easy,” said Rory Boland, the editor of consumer magazine Which? Travel. “There’s a considerable financial risk to travel this summer, especially over uncertainty about getting test results on time and what happens if you test positive.”

Airlines, hotels and restaurants dependent on tourism have waited with growing desperation for the U.K. and its European Union neighbors to loosen border restrictions so they can get back to business and repair the damage wrought by the yearlong coronavirus crisis. The caution shown by the U.K. -- one of the region’s biggest sources of tourism alongside Germany -- underscores how much work remains before something resembling normal travel can resume.

This week, the International Air Transport Association called on all governments to follow the example of France and make Covid-19 tests required on plane trips free to passengers. The airline industry’s main global lobby group published a paper showing the costs of PCR tests required by the U.K. could surpass $400 each. It argues that cheaper, faster lateral-flow tests are just as effective.

Brits Finally Traveling Again Means Long Lines and Costly Tests

The testing requirement has led package holiday company TUI AG to subsidize the cost, in a bid to entice customers to splash out on an overseas holiday. TUI is making test kits available for as little as 20 pounds ($28).

British Airways owner IAG SA pleaded with the government to institute “affordable, simple and proportionate testing.” BA and others including Ryanair Holdings Plc and EasyJet Plc worked out discount deals to offer customers PCR tests starting at 60 pounds each.

Border Waits

Then there are the border checks. After first taking a lighter-touch approach to monitoring passenger forms, U.K. airports are now checking 100% of arrivals’ paperwork, causing long lines to enter the country.

In some cases, people have had wait for 6 1/2 hours because there were only two staff on the Border Force desks to meet an aircraft holding 200 hundred passengers, according to Heathrow Airport CEO John Holland-Kaye, who said the line for a 500-seat jumbo would be a kilometer long and “impossible” to handle.

“We’re already having to keep people on the plane until the terminal is clear,” he said in an April 29 interview. “And we’ve had to turn down flights that want to book at Heathrow because we don’t have the room.”

The Border Force has also placed officers in protective “bubbles” that limit the ability to add people where they’re needed.

“Once the schools break up and if people are traveling, the severity of the situation is going to increase significantly,” said Lucy Moreton from the Immigration Services Union, which represents border staff. “You will see queues of two to four hours pretty constantly. Will it get as far as 10? It might.”

Brits Finally Traveling Again Means Long Lines and Costly Tests

Some of the obstacles to travel are by design.

The U.K.’s plan to review country categories every three weeks allows Prime Minister Boris Johnson to reverse course at any sign of an surge in Covid-19 cases. The government says PCR tests are needed to identify incoming virus variants, and that it’s working on getting the cost down.

Similarly, the adoption of a digital system that would allow test results to be swiftly registered at the border won’t be ready until after the peak summer travel months of July and August. The agency has plans to increase staff.

“For the time being, passengers will need to expect an increase in time taken at each stage of their journey,” Border Force Director General Paul Lincoln said at a Friday press conference. Checks that used to take 25 seconds per person now take 5 to 10 minutes, he said.

EU Travel

The challenges are slightly different within the Schengen free-travel area that include most of the 27 EU countries. While each nation remains in control of its borders, the European Commission has sought a unified approach that includes so-called vaccine passports.

The proposed system would allow open travel between EU states for residents who have either recovered from Covid-19, test negative or have been fully vaccinated. This will make it easier to move within the bloc -- passengers will only have to show proof once, before getting on a plane.

But getting the apps ready in place will take at least until late May, with a full roll-out unlikely till June.

Meanwhile, some warm countries that count on tourism for their economies are taking steps on their own. Greece has reopened travel from the U.S., the U.K., Russia and the United Arab Emirates. A PCR test requirement is waived for vaccinated travelers.

How much pent-up demand actually translates into bookings may determine whether some airlines are able to survive another year, said Daniel Roeska, an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein.

“A washout this summer could accelerate the push to the brink for some of the weaker carriers,” he said.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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