Staff at some of the UK’s most popular airlines gave holidaymakers incorrect information around Covid rules this summer, an investigation by Which? Travel has found.
Our research shows that airline call centre staff are just as confused about travel rules as the public.
Four out of 15 calls ended with customers receiving false information that would have seen passengers turned away at the airport with no hope of a refund.
Six out of 15 airline reps had never heard of lateral flow tests, despite them being commonly used to test for Covid-19.
Which? Travel posed as customers and phoned five of the carriers most frequently used by readers – BA, easyJet, Jet2, Ryanair, and TUI – to check if they were offering passengers the correct advice on Covid testing for travel.
Our investigation found staff were confused. We experienced mixed messages, buck-passing, inaccurate advice and – in some cases – we were hung up on.
Calling each airline three times, we asked each of them the same four questions about testing requirements when flying to mainland Portugal.
Six representatives from four airlines gave us false or contradictory information. At best, these errors would have seen us waste money on unnecessary tests, but in two calls with BA and two calls with TUI we received misinformation that would have seen us denied boarding with no right to claim a refund.
At the time of the research, passengers travelling to mainland Portugal 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.
However, two TUI reps and one BA rep incorrectly told us that vaccinated travellers did not need to take a test, with one of those TUI agents getting two questions wrong, by adding that children under 12 were also exempt. Another BA rep wrongly said that kids under four were exempt.
Those answers were all incorrect at the time of calling, and customers taking their advice would have been denied boarding.
We were also told by a BA rep that we didn’t need to bring any Covid-related documentation on holiday as long as we uploaded our test data to BA in advance. Perhaps this would have got us on the plane, but it’s unlikely it would have got us into our destination country.
An easyJet representative also answered an important question incorrectly, telling us that travellers of all ages – including children under two – needed to take a test.
In another instance, one confused Jet2 staff member changed their answers so many times during our phone call that we didn’t have a clue what to think by the time it was over.
Confused about which Covid test provider to book with? Read our latest advice.
Confused call reps
While all three of the TUI reps we spoke to were aware of them, six out of the 15 agents we contacted had never heard of lateral flow tests, despite them being a common travel testing requirement of the same type distributed by the NHS.
All but two call centre agents seemed unclear on the rules themselves, and beleaguered telephone staff often felt compelled to pass the buck.
One easyJet agent fobbed us off with a number they claimed was a Covid-19 advice line. It turned out to be the HM Revenue & Customs Covid-19 helpline for businesses and the self-employed.
Every easyJet agent we contacted recommended we call the airports directly for information, and claimed that it is airport staff – not easyJet ground staff – that check passengers’ Covid-19 documents. According to the airports, this simply isn’t true and it is the responsibility of the airlines to check that passengers have the correct paperwork.
However, easyJet told us that its staff training ensures ‘agents are providing accurate and consistent advice’.
They continued: ‘We always remind customers that ultimately it is their responsibility to ensure they meet entry requirements,’ and said easyJet writes to customers before flights, advising they check government guidance.
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.’
Of the 15 agents with whom we spoke, all three Ryanair staff acquitted themselves of any blame by simply refusing to offer any guidance.
Ryanair told us: ‘We do not expect our call centre agents to be experts on the multiple Covid travel restrictions.’
Just two airline reps provided correct answers. One Jet2 agent answered all our questions quickly and accurately, while also directing us to the best source of information: the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO).
One TUI rep also gave us correct information, although doing so took them 18 minutes 53 seconds because they spent so long upselling TUI’s testing partner – just like the other two TUI reps we contacted, who answered incorrectly.
This suggests that TUI had primed their reps to sell testing kit bundles, but not prepared them to dispense essential travel advice.
TUI said: ‘This research highlights the complexity of frequently changing entry and testing requirements,’ adding: ‘Our agents are trained and updated with new information on an ongoing basis.’
Jet2 said: ‘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.’
However, Jet2 added: ‘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.’
From pillar to post
It’s understandable that staff might struggle to give correct information when travel regulations are so complicated and change so frequently. Portugal’s entry requirements were updated at least twice in the 11 days following our calls, and reps have to consider both the UK’s rules and those of each destination, which are sometimes in conflict.
When we visited the Embassy of Portugal’s website, we were redirected to Portugal’s tourism website, which advised us to check travel restrictions with our airline. Airline reps then made mistakes, refused to answer, or directed us back to online sources, including the Embassy of Portugal’s website.
We advise against contacting your airline for Covid-19 travel advice. Your first port of call should always be the FCDO.