MAJOR airlines are providing incorrect information on Covid testing requirements that could lead to passengers being turned away from their flight, according to new research.
A mystery shopping exercise that involved contacting five of the UK’s major airlines – British Airways (BA), Easyjet, Jet2, Ryanair and Tui – to assess the accuracy of information they were giving passengers on testing requirements found that in nearly 50% of cases, incorrect and contradictory information was given over Covid rules.
The UK and devolved governments set the rules for testing requirements for passengers’ return to the UK, and foreign governments in other countries determine the rules for UK passengers’ arrivals.
Major UK airports, confirmed that it is up to airlines’ ground staff in UK airports to enforce these rules and decide if someone should be allowed on their flight.
The tests were carried out by researchers for the consumer organisation Which? posing as passengers trying to fly to mainland Portugal.
At the time of the research in June, passengers were required to take a test, regardless of previous infection or vaccination status.
Only PCR tests – not lateral flow tests – were accepted for entry to Portugal, and only children up to the age of two were exempt.
Which’s mystery shoppers were given incorrect or contradictory information in seven of the 15 calls.
In four of the calls – two with BA and two with Tui – agents provided information that the researchers said would have seen passengers turned away from their flight.
Only two agents – one from Jet2 and one from Tui – were able to answer all the questions correctly.
Six of the agents the mystery would-be passengers spoke to – two BA reps, two Easyjet reps, one Jet2 rep and one Ryanair rep – said they had never heard of lateral flow tests, despite these tests being a common travel testing requirement for some time and of the same type distributed by the NHS for rapid coronavirus testing at home.
Two Tui reps and one BA rep told the consumer champion’s undercover researchers that vaccinated travellers did not need to take a test prior to their flight, with one of those Tui agents adding that children under 12 were exempt. Another BA rep said that children under four were exempt from tests.
The consumer organisation said that these answers were incorrect at the time of calling, and customers taking their advice would have been denied boarding, leaving them out of pocket for the entire cost of their flight or holiday.
One mystery shopper was also told by a BA rep that they did not need to bring any documentation on holiday as long as they uploaded their test data to BA in advance.
Which? said the advice may have been sufficient to board the flight, but it is unlikely to have allowed the passenger entry into their destination country.
Just two airline reps answered all questions with correct information.
One Jet2 agent answered all of the questions quickly and accurately, while also directing the caller to the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) website, which has the most comprehensive information passengers might need.
One Tui rep also provided the correct information, but doing so took them almost 20 minutes, with the mystery shopper reporting that the agent spent more time upselling a testing partner than answering their questions.
The consumer organisation said: “While the rules for overseas travel are confusing and vary across countries, we believe airline staff should be better supported to understand the rules, given that ground staff are responsible for enforcing them at boarding gates and passengers are the ones who end up paying if they are turned away from their flight.”
Seven of the 15 calls ultimately ended with the caller being directed elsewhere, although the researchers said airline reps did not always provide clear answers as to where to look for this information.
When the undercover researchers managed to speak to reps for Ryanair, they were told variously to ‘ask the country,’ ‘check the government website,’ ‘call the embassy’ or ‘visit Ryanair’s website’.
Every Easyjet agent contacted recommended that airports were called for information, and incorrectly claimed that the airport staff – not the Easyjet ground staff – check passengers’ Covid documents.
Another Easyjet agent gave one of the callers a number that they claimed was a Covid-19 advice line, but that actually turned out to be HM Revenue & Customs’ Covid-19 helpline for businesses and the self-employed.
Rory Boland, Which travel editor said: “When airlines are responsible for deciding whether a passenger can board their flight or not, it’s essential that their staff have a thorough and accurate understanding of the rules. Otherwise, passengers could be left out of pocket for the entire cost of their flight or holiday if they follow the wrong advice.
“The most reliable place to look for information on testing requirements for travel to your destination is the FCDO’s website – here you’ll find the most up-to-date information regarding entry requirements, traffic light changes, and other critical information before you travel.”
An Easyjet spokesmans said: “Due to the fast changing, complex and widely ranging Government policies around restrictions in place across Europe we do send written communications to our customers before they fly and advise them to check the latest Government advice at the time to the countries they are flying to and from with links to relevant websites with up to date information. We also direct customers to our Covid Help Hub which allows them to stay informed on the latest travel guidelines to and from the 35 countries on our network and all customers who call into our call centre hear a recorded message before speaking to an advisor outlining where to find this information.
“We continually review the information we equip our agents with and provide them with ongoing and extensive training and so we continue with this to ensure that agents are providing accurate and consistent advice to customers, however, we always remind customers that ultimately it is their responsibility to ensure they meet entry requirements and will continue to advise customers to check the local Government requirements prior to departure.”
A Ryanair spokesman said: “This is more fake news from Which?. All Covid-19 travel requirements are fully set out on Ryanair’s website, and are emailed to all passengers 24 hours prior to travel. We do not expect our call centre agents to be experts on the multiple Covid travel restrictions, which apply across 40 different countries.”
A British Airways spokesman said: “Since the beginning of the global pandemic our teams have worked tirelessly to help customers navigate the fast-changing and differing global travel restrictions in place. Our colleagues are trained to advise our customers that they are required to check they meet the entry and testing requirements of the country they’re visiting. We also provide information in emails and on ba.com. While we don’t believe the issues raised in Which?’s three calls are representative of the hundreds of thousands we handle, we’ve reminded colleagues to keep referring customers to Gov.UK to avoid unintentional confusion.”
A Jet2 spokesperson said: “Our contact centre teams are dealing with an unprecedented number of enquiries, whilst at the same time dealing with ever-changing travel advice from the UK Government, which often comes with little or no notice. Despite this, our teams are working tirelessly to look after customers, and we have been widely praised for our handling of the pandemic.”
“We would like to thank Which? for bringing this to our attention. Although we provide consistent messaging for our teams to use, alongside regular training, we will take steps to address this feedback.”
“With travel advice changing so quickly and so regularly, we always advise customers to visit GOV.UK, as well as the travel requirements pages on our website if they are due to travel in the next 14 days.”
A Tui spokesman added: “This research highlights the complexity of frequently changing entry and testing requirements. We always strive to provide the best service possible for our customers, and our agents are trained and updated with new information on an on-going basis. Extra training to support fight-only queries is being provided, and to help customers further, detailed and current entry requirement information is available on our dedicated Covid hub.