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Amid COVID-19 Travel Bans Airlines Resume Europe Flights-How Is It?

If you want to fly London to Lisbon from today, May 1, several airlines are promising to take you there. This despite Europe’s ongoing COVID-19 travel bans on all international tourists. Budget operator Wizz Air is resuming flights to a host of Europe destinations this week. So too is Ryanair. Wizz Air and British Airways are selling tickets to Lisbon from Saturday and throughout the week. Wizz Air from Luton, BA from Heathrow.

BA’s “Book With Confidence” jingle seems a little out of place. How can a consumer book with confidence when an airline is selling flights to places that are in lockdown? Portugal’s borders as for those of 30 European countries are currently closed to all tourists and most foreigners until at least May 15. At that point the EU will again reassess its coronavirus travel ban, which could easily be renewed.

BA has been operating flights to Lisbon throughout April, though many have been cancelled. The maze of apparent flights vs. lockdown reality is creating consumer havoc, and not all potential passengers are getting replies to social media calls for clarity. Many instead are just lining up in the refund queues.

Likewise for Wizz Air’s “Worry Free Booking, Now Cheaper” slogan on its Facebook Page, as it entices people to “Book a flight now”. Following the airline’s promise last week to offer “very low fares” to rekindle the market, a London-Lisbon ticket will cost as little as £12.99 one-way over coming weeks, though up to a not-so-cheap £69.99.

But again, Portugal is in lockdown and no tourists are allowed, as the country’s daily Publico reports. Even movement between Portugal and Spain is strictly controlled it says, excluding any tourism between the neighbors.

Despite Portuguese government announcements Thursday that the country’s State of Emergency will from May 3 become a “State of Calamity”, the travel ban stays in place. There is no indication that the gradual lightening of Portugal’s lockdown measures over coming weeks yet extends to tourism.

According to the U.S. Embassy and Consulate in Portugal, current travel restrictions mean “only Portuguese nationals or returning foreign residents may enter Portugal through May 18, 2020 … Travelers should be prepared for additional travel restrictions to be put into effect with little or no advance notice.”

Additionally, Portugal also falls within the countries which the British Foreign Office advises its citizens not to visit. So would you try flying into Portugal right now for tourism? I certainly wouldn’t. And where on earth will you stay? Given nearly 95% of the country’s hotels are currently closed according to The New York Times.

Charade Or Cash Grab?

Indeed, how can any of these airlines be re-entering the European skies so vigorously in May when European lockdowns are still in place? Wizz Air is restarting flights from Luton to 15 destinations this month. Others available on its booking page are Budapest in Hungary, Bratislava in Slovakia, and Belgrade in Serbia. From May 2 there are flights to Tenerife, in lockdowned Spain’s Canary Islands. Yet local officials say the islands may be shut to all international tourists possibly until October, and no earlier than July.

So is Wizz Air counting on these flights being filled by Europe travel ban exempt-only passengers such as citizens, residents, and medical staff? This is a question I am waiting to hear from the airline about, as for Ryanair, who from mid-May is selling seats to numerous European destinations from London Luton. Those destinations include Barcelona, Athens (at a fulsome £332 one-way), Bologna and Nimes, despite travel bans on domestic and international tourists in all these countries. Even as Italy, Greece, Spain and France start to unfurl easing of quarantine measures, none of the relaxation for now extends to foreign tourism.

Starting this weekend, Ryanair is also offering regular flights from London Stansted to Budapest. That despite the fact that Hungary’s borders are closed. The airline seems to be enjoying see customers run around in circles on an endless cancellation-refund treadmill.

Wizz Air too is offering daily flights from Luton to Budapest, and apparently selling them. “Only 3 seats left at this price” says its booking page for Saturday’s flight.

The contradiction is causing huge confusion, and no doubt more refund heartache, among passengers.

It just seems like more and more booking traps are being set everywhere by airlines eager to make a buck quick. Unless, as I mention above, the ticket sales are targeting only passengers exempt from European travel bans.

If that were the case, surely this would be mentioned in the booking process? Yet there is no hint, for those tempted by the ticket bonanza, that travel is not open to anyone. None of the airlines currently selling tickets to Europe clarify the travel restrictions in place in the countries for which fares are available.

In an article in The Telegraph Wizz does suggest the flights “are to provide an essential service to those who need to travel”. But it fails to spell this out to potential customers, online.

This as thousands of consumers battle already for refunds for cancelled flights booked weeks ago. Now airlines are now ramping up ticket sales to places no tourist can visit. As The Telegraph article warns “Many customers now won’t be entitled to a refund for cancelling their booking”, given the FCO advises against travel.

The move by Wizz Air is raising eyebrows from many quarters. “There may be a need for some essential travel, but not giving the option to cancel without penalty looks like a cash grab,” judges Which?Travel Magazine in the U.K.

“Which? Travel claimed the decision had been made so Wizz Air does not have to cancel flights meaning it will not be legally obliged to refund passengers booked on them who decide not to travel,” notes Travel Weekly.

For former BBC news presenter and travel consultant, Paul Charles, Wizz is “possibly the most irresponsible airline in the sector right now.”

Curiously the airline makes no bones in a press statement about routes to and from Romania being suspended again due to “the prolonging of existing travel restrictions”. “Thus, the routes to France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, Spain, The United Kingdom and The Netherlands remain suspended until May 14 inclusive,” it states. But travel restrictions in several other destinations it’s selling have not been lifted.

Social Distancing Onboard Sweetener

Wizz Air says COVID-19 health precautions are a priority as it takes off again. All cabin crew will wear masks and gloves–disinfectant wipes will be handed out to passengers. Aircraft will be disinfected overnight, it said in a statement.

It may allow more space between passengers, as travel restrictions ease up, Chief Executive Jozsef Varadi told Reuters. With the middle seat of single-aisle planes left vacant to allow “a degree of social distancing aboard”. “We would basically be blocking a third of the airplanes,” he said. “A 180-seater would become a 120-seater.”

Stepped up sanitary measures aside, be sure to be aware of your rights before you press on the booking button. Don’t by any means think you can go off on holiday in Europe yet, just because there is suddenly an abundance of flights on offer from airlines.

While there are murmurings at an EU level of a special kind of COVID-19 passport to allow Europeans to holiday in Europe once the pandemic is under control, such a plan is far from seeing the light of day. Even if it eventuates, it’s not aimed at British travelers, or other non-European foreigners. All of whom may have to wait many months longer to get a green light for European travel.

* I’ve reached out to BA to see if the flights to Lisbon, when they get off the ground, are full of travel ban-exempt passengers. Though anyone can book tickets currently on offer.

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