The unexpected turn of events in Greece reveals the problem with relying on air bridges

Nick Trend
So near, yet so far: Greek holiday were supposed to restart on July 6. Now it will be at least July 15 - getty

The announcement by the Greek government yesterday that it is extending a ban on direct flights arriving from Britain until July 15, has thrown hundreds of summer holiday plans into confusion. It had been widely reported that Greece would be one of those destinations which would be included on a list of “air bridges” to be announced this week. These bridges - to be set up between the UK and other countries with a low incidence of Covid-19 - will allow UK residents to travel abroad without having to go into quarantine on their return to Britain. They will also involve a change of FCO travel advice, finally ending the blanket ban on all but essential travel which has been in place since March.

No official details had yet been published, but it has been widely expected that travel would be allowed from July 6 and some airlines and holiday companies had planned for holidays to Greece to restart on, or soon after, that date. Many consumers had been tempted by low fares and prices. Tui, the biggest tour operator, said bookings generally were up 50 per cent week-on-week, while Hays Travel, which bought Thomas Cook after the operator collapsed last year, said the phones “had not stopped ringing”. But those who had booked trips to Greece in the first half of July now face cancelled flights and holidays.

Tui had planned to restart flights to four Greek islands - Corfu, Crete, Rhodes and Kos - from July 11. But, wrong-footed by the extension of the ban, it has had to cancel all holidays to Greece with departures before the 15th. Other operators have been forced to follow suit and airlines, including Ryanair, EasyJet and British Airways, have also had to cancel flights scheduled before that date.

Legally speaking, airlines must refund fares on cancelled flights within seven days, and tour operators must refund the cost of cancelled package holidays within two weeks. In Tui’s case, customers have been informed and have the option of a refund. But we also know that very few airlines and travel companies have delivered on this timescale and millions of travellers are either still waiting for their cash to be returned or have had reluctantly to accept a postponement or credit note.

The unexpected turn of events in Greece - which has happened even before the first overseas holidays have restarted - has emphasised what a fragile situation would-be travellers are in. It looks as though it will be a summer of uncertainty for all of us, with the risk of last-minute changes and cancellations caused by spikes in infection rates either in the UK or abroad. An upsurge of cases in Portugal, the local lockdown in Leicester and the suggestion that people visiting Scotland from England might have to quarantine on arrival, are more clear-cut examples of the sort of complications we face.

The travel industry has taken some steps to try to alleviate consumers’ concerns. Some operators and airlines are adopting far more flexible policies for changes and cancellations. BA Holidays, for example, says that if you book a holiday with them before August 31 2020 for travel up to April 30, 2021, you can amend your booking for free (paying any difference in price) or cancel it and get a voucher for travel up until 30 April 2022. However, last week Which? pointed out today that customers of major holiday firms could be left out of pocket by thousands of pounds if they are told not to travel by the NHS ‘test and track’ service. It asked 23 airlines and holiday providers if customers who have holidays booked but are then told to self-isolate by the NHS coronavirus tracking system would be allowed to reschedule. Only 10 said they would allow customers who were told to self isolate to rebook. These are: Air France / KLM, British Airways, Emirates, Explore, Jet2 and Jet2 Holidays, Riviera, Tui, Ryanair, Saga and Virgin Atlantic.

So while you might be able to find exceptionally good value on a foreign holiday this summer, you’d be wise to book with your eyes wide open and only after having read the cancellation terms in the small print very carefully.