It seems odd to write a blog about a simple trip to the United Kingdom (UK), but we live in strange times, and this is a personal reflection on the experience that is not what it once was. To provide context, I had the opportunity to spend a week in the UK from 22–29 August – it was a window of opportunity when there was no quarantine required in either direction for fully vaccinated passengers. Travel was from Boston to London.
First things first: what was required for travel to the UK? You need to get, in this order: a travel booking; a booked PCR test for “Day 2” after arrival in UK; a Covid-19 test within 3 days of departure which could be antigen; and, to complete a UK passenger locator form which included much of that detail, including the reference number for the Day 2 test.
The travel booking was the easy bit, though flights are still limited. I went on United and there was no direct flight from Boston, so I was routed through Newark on the way out and Washinton DC on the return. United have a very helpful app called Travel Ready, and which seems not to be connected to TravelPass, CommonPass or any of the others, but it uses Timatic for its data source. The app tells a passenger what is required for each step of the journey and then asks the passenger to upload a photo of this for checking by a remote agent, who then updates the details in the travel booking. I had to send my passport, vaccine certificate, and result of my pre-departure test. Replies were returned within a couple of hours – to say they were fine. The advantage of this approach is that check-in at the airport was a breeze. It was not possible to check in online because the documentation had to be physically verified, but because the information had already been entered in the system the actual process at the desk was only slightly longer than normal.
Boarding cards in hand and masked up I went through security without problems into the airside of the airport. Logan Airport was one of the first to adopt the Airport Health Accreditation (AHA) programme and it showed – it was busy, most of the shops and food and beverage outlets were open and the atmosphere was just as it should be, there was a real buzz as people were about to travel. There were no delays, and the flight was on time to Newark, which was just as well as I had a tight connection. Mask compliance was good and most people wore them correctly both in the airport and on the flight.
The connection at Newark was easy and seamless – and a highlight was the public service announcement to boast that the airport was clean and healthy, and that it met the requirements of Airports Council International. You really can’t buy that kind of publicity.
The flight was about 2/3 full on a brand-new Dreamliner. I was intrigued to see that there was a trailer for the next additions to the fleet – the Boom Overture, for which United has 50 on order. It is good to see optimism in the industry for what comes next in terms of growth and resilience, and not just on the recovery.
The next step on the journey was arrival into Heathrow – not something I was looking forward to, given past stories of long queues and delays. In practice I am pleased to say that the UK had decided to take a pragmatic approach and assumed that the passenger locator form has been checked by the carrier. Instead, it carries out random checks to ensure compliance. This meant that the e-Gates were working for eligible travellers – though it appeared that others didn’t have it so easy as there were still queues for those who were not.
I was now free to go … but not free of obligations. Arrival is “Day 0,” so the Day 2 test still needed to be done and mailed back – it was a simple procedure and did not require supervision. The kit arrived in the mail with simple instructions and a link to a video for those in doubt. It was easy to do and then was sent back also by mail. The UK is collecting tests for central analysis to check whether there are new variants emerging and coming in from abroad, as well as for simple health reasons. The negative result was emailed to me in a couple of days. The saying is that with a vaccination certificate amber is the new green.
But, the testing was not over. Just as on the way out, the United Travel Ready app called on me to submit documentation and required another test within three days of return. Unfortunately, my Day 2 test was out of date by then, and as in the United States (US), it was not easy to find a local test for travel.
But, I was able to book an antigen test with Expresstest at the airport – which is acceptable for entry into the US. So, at 7.00 am on the Sunday, immediately before my flight, check-in time was 8.30, I arrived with many others at a temporary testing facility established in a disused part of the airport, where they expected to conduct 500 tests that day. The process looked a bit haphazard but in practice turned out to be straight forward. Booths had been constructed from plastic sheeting and the test taken professionally with the preliminary result available within 5 minutes. The final result was sent by email about 30 minutes later and satisfied check-in requirements with time to spare. After that, check in was easy and I was on my way back without further problems.
I am pleased to say that Heathrow, though quiet for Heathrow, was also busy for an early Sunday morning and I was able to enjoy coffee and a croissant before my flight to the US. There were no further Covid-19 related checks in Washington, just the usual customs and immigration requirements which again caused normal and acceptable delays.
In conclusion, international travel requires a lot more paperwork and time to prepare but the journey itself was smooth – whether it is scalable is another matter, but this is a quickly evolving situation, which may change at a moments notice. This blog post just gives a flavour of what to expect for the future.