UK Air Travel: Huge Delays Forecast For Passengers Who Travel, Major Problems Ahead for Transatlantic Travel

Photo: Heathrow Airport, British Airways Airbus A380 at take off, October 2013.
Photo: Heathrow Airport, British Airways Airbus A380 at take off, October 2013.

LONDON – The UK Government has ended the working week with warnings to holidaymakers that there will be delays at the border due to the need for extra COVID-19 checks as well as highlighting the complexities of transatlantic travel opening up again.

This comes following the news that “from July 19 children and adults who have been fully vaccinated against Coronavirus will not have to self-isolate on their return to England from Amber List countries” (Corbishley, 2021).

According to a source at Whitehall, delays could potentially be around six hours from when you arrive in the country, which comes as no surprise especially with Heathrow Airport reporting queues of up to seven hours earlier this year (ibid).

Andre Wadman (GFDL 1.2 or GFDL 1.2 ), via Wikimedia Commons

The former Prime Minister of the UK, Theresa May, has called for the government to increase its Border Force resources in order to avoid this, to which the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps responded:

‘I’ve been working with the Home Secretary and Border Force on exactly this issue… quite a lot of the checking will be done upstream… so queues at check-in whilst you’re abroad may in fact be the place where those problems most exist.

‘She’s absolutely right to say that it’s important that the borders at this end are as smooth as possible and indeed a lot of investment is going into automating all of that.’


Labour Calls for Communication with Airlines

The Labour Party, who is the current opposition to the UK Government, has demanded that the Transport Secretary contacts every airline flying in and out of the UK to avoid such delays.

The full letter, from the Shadow Transport Secretary Jim McMahon MP, reads (Labour Party, 2021):

Jim McMahon MP, Shadow Transport Secretary – Chris McAndrew, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Dear Grant,

I am writing to you after your media appearances this morning, when you spoke of the challenges passengers would face going aboard this summer.

On BBC Breakfast, you said:

“The real backlog will be from the place you’re coming from” and that “People should expect more disruption than usual”

While it’s right to manage expectations, Government ministers are not merely commentators on the situation – they are empowered to seek to address problems they foresee.

The unlock date is still 10 days away. Ministers should be actively working with the industry and major UK tourist destination airports to create a process that is both safe, appropriate but also workable.

So can I ask you whether you have met or spoken with every airline that flies into the UK from a Green or Amber list country, to talk them through the new processes and ensure that their staff will know how operate this new system as speedily as possible?

Is the Government confident that all airlines flying from these destinations can read the UK’s NHS app and understand when to allow a traveller on board or when not to? Would these challenges not highlight the need for an international vaccine passport, or at least international agreement on how a Covid passport might work?

As I asked you yesterday, whilst we have our own Covid passport via the NHS app there have been issues with other countries accepting this as sufficient proof entering into those countries. Do you know how many countries now accept the Covid passport of the NHS app as proof of someone’s Covid or vaccine status?

Finally, you noted in your BBC interview that more UK Border Force staff will be stationed at UK airports to deal with the expecting increase in traveller numbers. How many more officers will there be and what is your target time for how long will a traveller should expect to have to wait to go through a major UK airport such as Heathrow?

Yours sincerely,


Alongside some disgruntled Conservative MPs, this official level of opposition means that the pressure is once again on Shapps to establish a significant and efficient framework before ‘Freedom Day’ on July 19.

The Transatlantic Question

Another minefield that the Transport Secretary has to carefully walkthrough is the Transatlantic element to travel re-opening, primarily on the U.S-U.K basis.

On top of the warnings over delays for Coronavirus checks, Shapps exemplified that there will be significant issues to overcome in regards to reopening travel across the pond.

Grant Shapps, UK Government Transport Secretary – Richard Townshend, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

He pointed out that there are 50 different systems for proving vaccine statuses in the United States, with a lot of them being paper-based rather than digitally accessible (Tapsfield & Elkind, 2021).

This is contrasted to what the European Union is doing, where there will be a digital app that will apply to the entire bloc, which the UK is trying to arrange through the NHS (ibid).

On top of this, as per an AviationSource guest article for Simple Flying, there are issues beyond this such as “the rise in cases and the menacing Delta variant”, which is “causing a lot of concern on the other side of the Atlantic” as well as a solution being needed “regarding the status of AstraZeneca’s vaccine” (Field, 2021).

For the UK industry, this has caused the likes of Aer Lingus to delay the launch of its transatlantic operations from Manchester until September 30th (Bodell, 2021) as well as British Airways having to re-furlough staff (Boon, 2021) and Heathrow Airport struggling to address its £15bn debt mountain (Gill, 2021).

10/06/2021. Carbis Bay, United Kingdom. The President of the United States, Joe Biden stands next to The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson giving a thumbs up in front of the G7 sign while at the G7 Leaders’ Summit. Carbis Bay, Cornwall. Picture by Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street

This damaging delay could be as a result of the Biden Administration stating it “is in no hurry” to agree the terms of the corridor as well as the UK Government stating that “this is not something we’ll be announcing imminently” (Field, 2021).

That being said, there is a little twink of hope, however, diminished it may be currently, with the UK and the US announcing a joint task force on restarting travel at the recent G7 Summit (Boon, 2021a).

All Steam Ahead

What we do know is that the UK and US governments respectively need to make some fast moves when it comes to this corridor.

Transatlantic travel is an incredibly lucrative market, with UK businesses “losing £23 million each day that transatlantic links remain closed” as well as it costing the US economy $325 billion in total losses, sacrificing 1.1 million jobs by the end of this year (Virgin Atlantic, 2021).

Last month, leaders of some of the world’s largest airlines spoke out about how important these links are, as you can see below:

Heathrow Airport, Terminal 5 complex viewed from control tower, February 2018

Sean Doyle, Chairman, and CEO, British Airways said: “As President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Boris Johnson meet this week, they must address the transatlantic ban that is separating our two low-risk countries at a major cost to our citizens and economies. We urgently need them to look to the science and base their judgments on proper risk analysis, allowing us all to benefit from the protection offered by our successful vaccine rollouts. In the UK this means making the traffic light system fit for purpose, including a pathway to restriction-free travel for vaccinated travelers, and getting rid of complexity surrounding ‘amber list’ countries, eliminating quarantine and reducing the number of tests passengers are required to take.”

John Holland-Kaye, CEO, Heathrow said: “Connectivity between the UK and the US is one of the great engines of the global economy. The scientific data shows transatlantic travel and trade can be reopened safely and every day that policymakers delay puts jobs, livelihoods, and the economic chances of hardworking folks across our countries at risk unnecessarily. We cannot continue to keep locked up indefinitely. Politicians should seize on the successful vaccination programs in our two countries to begin looking to a future where we manage COVID rather than letting it manage us.”

“As we see people reclaiming their lives and reconnecting with loved ones, it’s clear that the infection rates of our countries indicate an extraordinarily low risk to travel between the US the UK, provided travelers are vaccinated or can produce a negative PCR test prior to boarding a flight,” said Ed Bastian, CEO, Delta Air Lines. “Our modeling studies conducted with Mayo Clinic put the risk of transmission on a plane traveling between the UK and US at 1 in 1 million.”

“The surge in travel in recent weeks has been remarkable as case counts fall and vaccination rates rise and we’re confident that demand for travel between the US and the UK would follow a similar recovery pattern with an established travel corridor between the two countries,” said Robin Hayes, Chief Executive Officer, JetBlue. “As international destinations have opened to travelers across our Latin America and Caribbean network and traveling has been made easier with fewer border restrictions, we’ve seen a notable uptick in the number of people flying to these destinations. Data has shown that people can travel safely when certain health and safety protocols remain in place and we believe the UK should implement revised border restrictions similar to those that have already been successful in many other countries.”

Virgin Atlantic (2021), Call for Re-Opening of Transatlantic Travel, [Last Accessed 10th July 2021]

These comments show how vital it is for the industry on both sides of the pond to get Transatlantic operations up and kicking.

All eyes will now be on the respective governments to make some sacrifices and compromises that will be for the greater good of their economies, especially as we look towards some level of normality with ‘Freedom Day’ and the incredible progress of the vaccination program.

  • Corbishley, S. (2021), Warnings of ‘six hour airport queues’ as travel quarantine rules lifted, Metro, [Last Accessed 10th July 2021]
  • Labour (2021), Labour Demands Transport Secretary Talk to Every Airline Flying into UK to Prevent Huge Delays at Airports This Summer, [Last Accessed 10th July 2021]
  • Tapsfield, J. & Elkind, E. (2021), Grant Shapps warns of major problems bringing back quarantine-free travel from the US as there are ’50 different systems’ for proving whether Americans are double-jabbed and some are paper-based rather than digital, The Daily Mail, [Last Accessed 10th July 2021]
  • Field, J. (2021), Transatlantic Hopes for the Summer Begin to Dissipate in the UK, Simple Flying, [Last Accessed 10th July 2021]
  • Bodell, L. (2021), Aer Lingus Delays Manchester Transatlantic Flight Launch, Simple Flying, [Last Accessed 10th July 2021]
  • Boon, T. (2021), Travel Restrictions Force British Airways to Re-Furlough Staff, Simple Flying, [Last Accessed 10th July 2021]
  • Gill, O. (2021), Slow return of transatlantic travel fuels Heathrow fears, The Telegraph, [Last Accessed 10th July 2021]
  • Boon, T. (2021a), A Glimmer of Hope? UK Confirms US Travel Corridor Taskforce, Simple Flying, [Last Accessed 10th July 2021]
  • Virgin Atlantic (2021), Call for Re-Opening of Transatlantic Travel, [Last Accessed 10th July 2021]

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