Leading airlines have been accused of giving wrong information on Covid testing requirements that could lead to passengers being turned away from flights.
Consumer group Which? made the claim after mystery shopping British Airways, easyJet, Jet2, Ryanair and Tui to assess the accuracy of information they were giving passengers on testing requirements.
Posing as passengers, Which? phoned the airlines’ customer service lines three times each and asked the same four questions about testing requirements when flying to mainland Portugal.
At the time of the research, 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.
The mystery shoppers were given incorrect or contradictory information in seven of the 15 calls, according to Which?.
In four of the calls – two with BA and two with Tui – agents provided information that 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.
Two Tui reps and one BA rep told 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 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 didn’t need to bring any documentation on holiday as long as they uploaded their test data to BA in advance.
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 of the 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 Tui’s testing partner than answering their questions.
Unaware of lateral flow
Six of the agents Which? 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.
Seven of the 15 calls ultimately ended with the caller being directed elsewhere, although the airline reps did not always provide clear answers as to where to look for this information.
When the 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 Which? contacted recommended that we call airports for information, and incorrectly claimed that the airport staff – not the carrier’s ground staff – check passengers’ Covid documents.
Another easyJet agent gave one of Which?’s 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.
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.
However when Which? contacted a number of major UK airports, all 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.
All the airlines contacted outlined that it is passengers’ responsibility to ensure they meet the requirements for boarding, and that if they do not, they can be turned away from their flight with no recourse to a refund.
While the rules for overseas travel are confusing and vary across countries, Which? said 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.
Which? Travel editor Rory Boland 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.”
A Ryanair spokesperson hit back and 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.”
However, a Tui spokesperson said: “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.”
BA said: “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.”
An easyJet spokesperson said: “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 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.
“Although we provide consistent messaging for our teams to use, alongside regular training, we will take steps to address this feedback.”