The race to the sun has begun. After an unprecedented 19-week ban on international leisure travel from the UK, 30 holiday flights are scheduled to depart on Monday to Portugal.
Three more will leave for Gibraltar, the only other southern European destination on the government’s meagre “green list” – from which returning holidaymakers need not quarantine.
Until midnight on Sunday, anyone who turned up at a British airport hoping to get on a flight for non-essential reasons faced a £5,000 fine.
On the day the travel ban was lifted, around 5,000 holidaymakers are expected to make the journey from the UK to the Iberian peninsula and the Portuguese islands of Madeira and Porto Santo.
Johan Lundgren, chief executive of easyJet, said he and the airline’s staff were “super excited” about resuming normal business, albeit at a small scale.
“There should be many more European countries on the green list,” he told The Independent from Gatwick airport.
“We would like to see the government take the same approach to international travel as they to UK hospitality.”
Mr Lundgren said the airline’s decision to fly to amber destinations was consistent with the rules on international travel.
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But onerous testing rules requiring expensive procedures have diminished the appetite for travel.
Ryanair has cut the fare from Stansted to Faro to £9.99 on Monday. The same price applies on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The Portuguese authorities announced on Friday afternoon that arrivals must present a negative PCR test. Travellers booked to travel on Monday had less than 72 hours’ notice to organise the test, typically at a cost of £100.
The first departure of a holiday flights since January, from Manchester to Funchal in Madeira with Tui, left on scheduled at exactly 6am. Another Tui flight, from Gatwick to Porto Santo, pushed back two minutes later.
But because of the long flight time to Madeira they will not be the first aircraft to arrive in Portugal: a Ryanair flight from Manchester to Faro is due to touch down at 9.05am. It will be followed half-an-hour later by another Ryanair jet from Stansted – which is the main departure point for Portuguese departures on Monday, with seven.
Gatwick and Heathrow are despatching six each; Manchester five; Birmingham three; with one to Faro from each of Bournemouth, Luton and East Midlands.
The Ryanair flight from East Midlands is the first commercial passenger flight in six months.
Ryanair is the leading airline, with 14 departures. British Airways has five, easyJet and Tui four, and TAP Portugal three.
More than half are heading for Faro, with six to Lisbon, four to Madeira, three to Porto and one to Porto Santo.
To Gibraltar, the only other accessible destination on the green list, British Airways is first away from Heathrow, followed by Wizz Air and easyJet from Luton.
Spain, France, Italy and Greece – the major European destinations for UK holidaymakers – are all on the “amber list”.
Airlines and holiday companies are flying to amber list countries, from which 10 days’ self-isolation at home is required.
There are multiple departures from London airports to the Costa del Sol airport of Malaga: on British Airways from Heathrow, easyJet from Gatwick and Ryanair from Stansted.
Tui is sending two holiday flights to the Greek island of Corfu, also on the amber list.
On Sunday, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, told Times Radio: “The red and amber list are places that you shouldn’t go to unless you have an absolutely compelling reason.”
Charlie Cornish, chief executive of Manchester Airports Group – which includes Stansted and East Midlands – said: “Welcoming passengers back to our airports today is a symbolic moment after the most difficult year in our history.
“However, with so few countries on the green list, this is not the broader restart our sector or our passengers were hoping for.
“We’re calling on ministers to increase the number of countries on the green list, and for a smarter approach to protecting the UK from variants of concern which would remove the need for costly PCR testing.”
The veteran travel guide, Paul Goldstein, who is travelling on Monday from Stansted to Faro, said: “The green list is just a bit of tokenism from Matt Hancock and [transport secretary] Grant Shapps so they can get the headlines that they granting summer holidays.”
Most of the dozen destinations on the green list are either inaccessible or are not admitting British holidaymakers. Iceland, which will allow in vaccinated travellers from the UK, has no flights from the UK until 25 May.
The first ministers of Scotland and Wales have urged people in their nations to holiday at home.
The Labour chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, Yvette Cooper, called for “a more cautious approach to the pace of opening up international travel as the vaccine programme is rolled out, so we can keep lifting restrictions at home”.