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Want to fly to Britain? Its struggling travel industry hopes it just got easier

Britain is revamping its international travel rules in a bid to restore consumer confidence in taking an overseas holiday. Passenger traffic has fallen off a cliff because of cumbersome rules and expensive COVID-19 tests.

Rules revamped as people avoid taking international trips

In a sign of hope for a beleaguered travel industry, Air Transat returned to the United Kingdom this week, with the Canadian carrier's airplanes landing at Gatwick Airport south of London for the first time since flights were suspended 11 months ago. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

In a summer full of depressing travel news, Canada finally delivered Stewart Wingate, the CEO of London's Gatwick Airport, something he could celebrate. 

For the first time in almost a year, the blue star of Canada's third-largest carrier, Air Transat, was back at Gatwick as the airline resumed flights to the United Kingdom this week after a break during the pandemic.

"To have the Air Transat planes back in the sky, it's incredibly important to us," Wingate told CBC in an interview from the rooftop of Gatwick's nearly deserted South Terminal.

Air Transat's return came just a few days before Britain revamped its international travel rules on Friday in a bid to restore consumer confidence in taking an overseas holiday. Westjet, which also flies into Gatwick, had resumed flights from Calgary and Toronto in July.

Once the busiest single-runway airport in the world, with a plane taking off or landing roughly once a minute, Gatwick, 50 kilometers south of London, is operating at only one-third of its usual capacity. Pre-pandemic, Gatwick claims it was Europe's 16th-busiest airport in terms of passenger volume, whereas now it has fallen to 64th place.

While Gatwick's South Terminal is seeing little traffic, the U.K.'s tourism sector says European airports are twice as busy as British ones because of simpler rules on COVID-19. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Gatwick's focus is largely on leisure traffic, and it's the hub for discount carrier EasyJet.

Likewise, London's No. 1 airport — Heathrow — has also seen its passenger numbers fall off a cliff, dropping by more than 80 per cent since the start of the pandemic.

From the Gatwick terminal rooftop, the sight of many vacant departure gates illustrates the struggles Britain's diminished travel sector has faced.

The country's travel industry association, ABTA, the Association of British Travel Agents, estimates the downturn has cost the country more than 100,000 direct travel-related jobs.  

Missed rebound

European airports such as Frankfurt and Amsterdam, on the other hand, have rebounded much faster than those in the U.K. largely because their host countries have simplified their travel restrictions, said Wingate.

"We're only running at about half the level of the European airports."

Queues of people wait to clear U.K. customs at Heathrow airport in London on Sept. 1, 2021. Even though traffic is down, excessive paperwork and short staffing at airports have created huge backlogs for passengers arriving in the country. (Guy Faulconbridge/Reuters)

All summer and now into the fall, Britain's airlines, tour operators and passenger rights groups have been engaged in an acrimonious fight with the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson as they pushed for changes to Britain's international travel regulations.

The prime target has been the UK's "traffic light system," which gave every country a classification — green, amber or red — depending on their level of vaccinations and the incidence of COVID-19.

The industry complained the ratings often changed without notice, and by mid-summer, ABTA claims 58 per cent of travellers ended up cancelling holiday plans because of the uncertainty.

Travel, both outbound and return to the U.K., has also required a series of pricey COVID-19 tests for passengers — as many as four or five per return trip — costing up to $130 Cdn each, which added another disincentive for taking a trip.

Visitors to red list countries are also required to hotel quarantine upon their return for 14 days, at a cost of up to $4,000 Cdn for an adult.

"The global economy's been incredibly damaged by COVID-19 and we need to get things moving," ABTA spokesperson Sean Tipton said in an interview.

Stewart Wingate, CEO of Gatwick Airport, says with new U.K. travel rules, passenger traffic should slowly ramp up again over the fall and into Christmas season. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

New rules

Finally, Johnson's government gave the industry much of what it was hoping for on Friday, with a "simpler, more straightforward system," according Transportation Minister Grant Shapps.

The traffic light system will be replaced by two lists, a red list of countries where travel is banned for all but essential reasons and a green list for everywhere else. Canada has been on the U.K.'s green list since the last review three weeks ago.

Crucially, fully vaccinated travellers also won't have to pay for COVID-19 PCR tests after they enter the U.K., which should eliminate cumbersome paperwork and reduce the cost of flying.

Instead, passengers will have to take a much cheaper and easier lateral flow test. Full hotel quarantines after returning from red list countries will still apply.

WATCH | Mishmash of regulations hinders international travel: 

Mishmash of rules hampers international travel recovery during pandemic

3 months ago
2:00
AirTransat has resumed its flights from Canada to the U.K., which some hope points to a recovery for international travel that has been hampered by a mishmash of rules and low consumer confidence. 2:00

In terms of regulations, the new British rules will bring the country closer to Canada, which earlier this month opened up for international travel to fully vaccinated visitors.    

A key difference is that Canada still requires passengers to have a PCR test within 72 hours of boarding their flight into the country.

Passengers flying back to Canada from Gatwick this week had already taken off before the new rules were publicized. But Wendy Day, who was on her way to Toronto, said the simplified rules system was long overdue.

"If it wasn't for the fact that we were going to see our son, we probably wouldn't have taken a holiday." 

A passenger gets tested for COVID-19 at Gatwick Airport. The U.K. says arriving travellers will no longer have to pay for expensive tests if they are fully vaccinated. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Prof. Kelley Lee of Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., has been part of a multinational research effort studying the impact of travel restrictions during the COVID pandemic.

She said the U.K.'s "traffic light system" was never an effective way of dealing with the coronavirus because decisions over which countries to put on which list were inherently political and not based on science.

"That leaves open a lot of lobbying and a lot of undermining of public health," Lee told CBC in an interview.

She said the broad conclusions of her research to date are that it's still too soon to ditch travel restrictions altogether as coronavirus variants are continuing to evolve.  

While border controls can't keep the virus out, she said, they have been effective at slowing its spread.

"What you can do is slow the virus down. You can buy yourself a few days, even a few weeks."

However, Lee said there needs to be far better co-ordination and agreement among countries on what the rules for travel should be.

"It's very unco-ordinated. For the traveller, it's a nightmare. For the airlines, it's a nightmare." 

London's Gatwick Airport specializes in taking passengers to holiday destinations. It is currently running at 30 per cent of its capacity. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Wingate, the Gatwick CEO, said with the new rule changes, passenger traffic in the U.K. should slowly ramp up again over the fall and into Christmas.

"We're a catalyst for the local economy," said Wingate, "but we also know we are a catalyst for routes at the other end.  So when we are flying into Vancouver, Toronto or Calgary, we know what we are enabling is for global business to take place at both ends of that route."

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