Passengers could be turned away from flights because airlines are giving out incorrect information on Covid-19 testing requirements, a watchdog has warned.
The watchdog "Which?" discovered during a mystery shopping exercise that most agents for five major UK airlines – British Airways, easyJet, Jet2, Ryanair and Tui – were unable to provide clear, consistent or accurate answers.
It found that in nearly half of the calls, the passenger would have been turned away from their flight had they followed the information provided by the agent.
If a traveller does not meet the entry requirements and cannot board their flight, they have no recourse to a refund.
The UK and devolved governments set the rules on testing for people’s return to the UK, and foreign governments in other countries determine the rules for UK passengers’ arrivals.
But when Which? contacted a number of major UK airports, all confirmed that it is up to airlines’ ground staff to enforce these rules and decide if someone should be allowed on a flight.
All of the airlines contacted said it was a passenger’s responsibility to ensure they met the requirements for boarding, and that if they did not they could be turned away with no refund.
Posing as passengers, Which? phoned the customer service lines for the five airlines three times each and asked the same four questions about testing requirements when flying to mainland Portugal.
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, were accepted for entry to Portugal, and only children up to the age of 2 were exempt.
The consumer watchdog’s mystery shoppers were given incorrect or contradictory information in seven of the 15 calls.
In four of the calls – two to BA and two to Tui – agents provided information that would have led to passengers being turned away from their flight.
Only two agents – one from Jet2 and one from Tui – were able to answer all of the questions correctly.
Two Tui representatives and one from BA said vaccinated travellers did not need to take a test before their flight, with one of the Tui agents adding that children under 12 were exempt.
Another BA agent said that children under 4 were exempt from tests.
These answers were incorrect at the time, and customers taking the advice would have been denied boarding, and out of pocket for the cost of their flight or holiday.
One mystery shopper was also told by a BA representative that they did not need to take any documentation on holiday if they uploaded their test data to the airline in advance.
The advice may have been sufficient to board the flight, but it is unlikely to have allowed the passenger entry to their destination.
Six of the agents Which? spoke to – two from BA, two from easyJet, and one each from Jet2 and Ryanair – said they had never heard of lateral flow tests, despite them having been a common travel requirement for some time.
The tests are of the same type distributed by the British National Health Service for rapid coronavirus testing at home.
When the undercover researchers managed to speak to agents for Ryanair, they were told to "Ask the country", "Check the government website", "Call the embassy", or "Visit Ryanair’s website".
Every easyJet agent contacted recommended that customers call airports for information, and incorrectly claimed that airport staff, not easyJet ground staff, check passengers’ Covid documents.
Another easyJet agent gave one of the mystery shoppers a number they claimed was a Covid-19 advice line, but that turned out to be HM Revenue and Customs’ coronavirus helpline for businesses and the self-employed.
Which? strongly advised travellers against contacting their airline for Covid-19 travel advice. It said they should consult the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office website.
“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," Which? Travel editor Rory Boland said.
"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 British Airways spokesman said: “Our colleagues are trained to advise our customers that they are required to check that 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.”
An easyJet spokeswoman 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 spokeswoman said: “Our contact centre teams are dealing with an unprecedented number of inquiries, while at the same time dealing with ever-changing travel advice from the UK Govgernment, which often comes with little or no notice.
“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.”
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.”
Tui 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 ongoing basis.
“Extra training to support flight-only queries is being provided and to help customers further, detailed and current entry requirement information is available on our dedicated Covid hub."