The travel industry is gearing up for the start of leisure travel on Monday 17 May, when foreign holidays can resume under a “traffic light” system.
At the moment, the only mainstream holiday destination on the list is Portugal, but that hasn’t stopped travellers booking in their thousands: travel firms including Tui and Jet2 have reported a bounce in bookings as Britons are desperate to get away.
A quick reminder of the rules around travel: countries have been sorted into either green, amber or red. There are 12 nations on the green list, including Portugal, Iceland and Israel, while there are 43 countries on the red list, including the UAE, Turkey and India. Everywhere else is amber, including most of Europe.
Arrivals from green countries won’t need to quarantine on return to the UK unless they test positive for coronavirus; amber arrivals will need to self-isolate for 10 days at home; and red list arrivals will have to go into mandatory hotel quarantine for 11 nights, at a cost of £1,750.
Every passenger will need to present a negative test on departure for the UK (this can be a lateral flow/rapid antigen test), regardless of vaccination status. Green arrivals will also need to take a PCR test within two days of arrival into the UK, while amber and red arrivals will need a test on days two and eight. These must be booked in advance and will be checked at the border.
So what can passengers expect when they fly BA from Monday? I went to a very quiet Heathrow terminal five to experience the whole process, from booking to flying.
Before passengers can do much else, there’s the actual booking procedure. Before the next potential green list reshuffle, expected at the beginning of June, the options are pretty limited for Britons: Portugal (and its islands), Iceland, Gibraltar and Israel (as well as some South Atlantic islands).
Checking the destination’s entry requirements is a passenger’s responsibility, and the Foreign Office’s country advice should be the first port of call. On the BA side, there’s the Covid-19 hub, which highlights booking policies, entry requirements and any Covid FAQs.
After booking and before check-in, customers can upload any relevant Covid documentation (vaccination status, negative tests results, etc) online. BA has two options, depending on destination.
First, there’s the VeriFLY mobile travel health app, which BA is trialling. VeriFLY is valid for all inbound flights to the UK, as well as outbound flights to the US, Canada and France.
The app guides customers through the requirements for their destination country, ensures they have all the correct documentation, and validates it all with a green tick. That information is sent hourly to BA. Customers who are eligible to use VeriFLY for their journey will receive an email before check-in.
For destinations including Cyprus, Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal there’s the option to upload all Covid documentation direct into the “manage my booking” area of ba.com, which will verify that all the correct documentation has been provided, and certify this to the airline.
Elsewhere, BA is also set to trial the Iata travel pass later this month, which is already being piloted on airlines including Air New Zealand, Emirates and Singapore Airlines.
Richard Treeves, head of business resilience for British Airways, said the goal was to “provide customers with as much information as possible”, and that when they arrive at Heathrow from Monday, “they will see an experience as close to normal as possible”.
However, the onus is still on the passenger to ensure all relevant requirements are met prior to travel.
Many countries demand passengers present a negative PCR test taken within a certain timeframe (typically around 72 hours before arrival), although this may be waived depending on vaccination status. Different countries also have different stipulations about the tests that meet their entry requirements - for example, some will accept lateral flow tests, others require a PCR and will not accept self-administered tests. Again, check Foreign Office advice before travel, as this may change at short notice.
Research from Which? in April showed that testing requirements could add up to £1,500 onto a holiday for a family of four. There are ways to get cheaper deals, as many businesses across the travel spectrum, including airlines and holiday companies, have struck deals with testing firms to offer discounted tests in order to spur tourism.
Last week, Tui unveiled a very competitive package, with the two tests required for arrival back into the UK from a green list country costing just £20 (and £50 with the PCR test needed for a holiday destination included).
British Airways has partnered with provider Eurofins to offer a pre-departure PCR test for £40.41, and said today it would trial 25-second rapid Pelican Covid tests, which could complement the brace of testing options it currently offers.
The flag carrier is only operating from Heathrow terminals three – which also serves other airlines – and five, although this is expected to change as travel ramps up further in the months to come.
Touch-screen kiosks will reopen from 17 May, and they have been coated in antiviral coating, which can last up to six weeks. Human to human contact will be minimised wherever possible.
If passengers do need to check-in manually, rather than bunching up in a queue, they can use technology to book slots.
The airline is trialling new technology from Qmatic that will enable customers to pre-book their slot time in advance of arriving at the airport. The technology will be trialled for three months on selected flights from T5. However, in the airport itself, passengers can scan a QR code in departures to join a “digital queue”, which will alert them via their smartphone when it’s their turn.
The airport is fogged throughout the day, while extra hand sanitising stations and antiviral wipes have been provided. Key touch-points will be sanitised every 25 minutes, likewise trolley handles.
BA has employed 100 sanitation hygiene technicians, who will make sure cleanliness is top priority.
There are also four UV “robots”, all with names (one called Kelly), who blast the toilets across the terminals with high level UV sanitisation.
A new family check-in area, with 25 desks, is being developed – “to address the uncertainty around children and Covid”, says Gurm Nijjer, BA’s head of ground product. It should be fully operational by May bank holiday, a busy time for family travel.
If you’re flying in a premium cabin, the lounge experience will look a little different. For starters, there’s no buffet; all food and drink is ordered via a QR code and delivered straight to your seat. (Fun fact: passengers are also drinking less booze because they’re not stocking up in the lounges before their flight, said Mr Nijjer.)
In BA’s First and Concorde lounges in Heathrow, a new sleep area charmingly called 40 Winks will be ready for 17 May. The areas will include sleep pods, to be booked via the digital platform (which also enables customers to order relaxing things like chamomile tea and hot towels).
Some seats in departures are still blocked off to allow for social distancing.
Boarding will still take place from back to front by row number.
BA is trialling “personalised boarding”, first on domestic flights, before then moving to short-haul and all flights by the summer. All passengers, regardless of class, can book a boarding time slot, which should remove the “pinch point”, according to Matthew Callard, BA’s head of ground experience.
You’ve been tested, checked-in, security checked and boarded. Phew. What can you expect onboard?
Well, a very clean aircraft, for starters. All BA aircraft get a deep clean overnight, and all high-touch areas are cleaned after every flight, says Tom Stevens, director of customer experience for BA. Masks are still mandatory onboard.
BA has partnered with Dettol, ensuring every passenger is given a pack of Dettol products when they board, including antiviral wipes to wipe down any surfaces.
And good news: all passengers, even on short haul, will be offered snacks and water in economy on all flights.
Airlines have been at pains to point out how low-risk air travel is for Covid infections, due to high-quality air circulation and air filters.
Dr Mike Harrigan, head of BA health service, emphasised that “the cabin environment is safe”, thanks to three factors: air filtration, air exchanges and air flow.
Cabin air is made up of fresh outside air and recirculated cabin air, which gets passed through high-efficiency particulate absorbing (Hepa) filters every few minutes. It ensures the air returning to the cabin is clean, and is 15 times more effective than the average home ventilation system, says Mr Harrigan.
BA has mandated that all pilots must be at the controls every 35 days to ensure they’re not out of practice.
After all that, the only thing to say is: have a good holiday.