Britain told us to come home from Bali – but there were no planes, and no help | Amelia Sandy | Opinion

Never did I think I would find myself sat by a pool in Bali, begging to leave at any cost – but that’s exactly the position I was in last week. As coronavirus spread worldwide it halted planes and stranded me and my boyfriend 12,000 miles from home – with no idea how we’d get back.

I was only two months into a backpacking trip, which I had spent two years saving for, when it became apparent that the virus would affect our plans. I decided to play it safe and cut my trip short by three months – with a final week on the beach in Bali to soften the blow. We booked flights home for 25 March. I relaxed into my sunlounger, safe – so I thought – in the knowledge that I would soon be back home. But, as we all now know, what a difference a week makes.

Two days before our flight, I received an email. All transit through the United Arab Emirates had been put on hold. I felt panic: our flights had a stopover in Dubai. I remained calm and booked another flight for the following day. Hours later, the Foreign Office issued a statement advising all British nationals to come home. With flights already being cancelled, my first thought was: “It’s a bit late now.” The next day, our second flight was cancelled. In total, between the two of us, we would end up booking four flights from Jakarta to London each, costing almost £7,000. We spent all of our own savings and even had to borrow money from my mother’s savings. Now we are back in the UK, but because my boyfriend and I both work in hospitality, we can’t even find work to pay her back. But it’s just money, and we are happy to be home.

Thousands of passengers left stranded abroad by cancelled flights are not being told that they are entitled to their rerouting costs, consumer groups have warned.

Normally when an airline starts cancelling, passengers are entitled to EU compensation of €250-€600 (£230-£550). However, where the cancellation is deemed to be an “extraordinary circumstance” – something outside the airline’s control, such as coronavirus – then the rules do not apply.

However, passengers stranded abroad by the cancellation in the EU – or due to travel home on an EU carrier – are entitled to rerouting, or to have their alternative travel costs refunded.

Thousands of air passengers have found themselves on the wrong side of cancellations – particularly in Spain but also in places such as Morocco and Poland. If your flight is cancelled, passengers can ask the airline to be rerouted on to an alternative flight, if that is possible, or to pay for a train or coach replacement.

This applies all flights that start in the UK, EU, Iceland, Norway or Switzerland or flights that arrive in these countries if you are flying on a UK/EU-based airline.

The airline does not have to pay if the passenger chooses instead to receive a refund of the return flight’s cost. If it is possible to get home, passengers are advised to take the rerouting option. Passengers making their own way home should keep all receipts and keep accommodation and other costs “reasonable”.

In practical terms, passengers are having to fend for themselves, as it is all but impossible to get hold of airlines. Passengers trying to call British Airways on Friday described how it was impossible to talk to anyone – and that was before Donald Trump extended the US flight ban to include the UK and Ireland.

The bigger problem may well be getting the airlines to pay up. They have been reluctant to pay rerouting costs in normal times, let alone in the current climate. Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether they will still be in business to pay out, given that many are saying they are unlikely to survive without state help.

As a result, some travellers will likely find themselves relying on travel insurance, where their policy allows for travel disruption.

This is mostly offered by better, more expensive policies. Where the passenger used their credit card to book the flight – directly – with the airline, they may be able to hold their card provider responsible for their extra travel costs – if the flight costs more than £100 – and the airline refuses to pay.

Ultimately, the UK government may have to step in to repatriate large numbers of Britons stuck in places such as the Canary Islands or Morocco, where alternative travel is near impossible.

Passengers on package tours are better protected. Ski customers in France on package trips should be repatriated by the tour operator – and if the firm ceases to exist because it goes bust, the Civil Aviation Authority. The CAA would have to fund emergency repatriation flights, under the terms of the Atol protection. It is a similar story for any cruise passengers stuck abroad.

Rory Boland, the editor of Which? Travel, said: “This is a difficult time for travel operators and airlines but too many people are being given no information at all or poor advice that could risk them being left hundreds of pounds out of pocket. Airlines and operators must ensure they are informing customers of how they will get people home and, where appropriate, how they can claim for additional costs they’ve incurred, such as overnight accommodation.”

Miles Brignall

We were not the only ones in this situation. Denpasar airport was full of people of all nationalities looking bewildered and lost, in tears, frantically making phone calls. The Brits were all in the same boat – essentially being given one day’s notice from the government to get home before all flights were cancelled. It was an impossible task, and pot luck as to whether you had booked a flight that fell in that 24-hour window. My impression is that the British government just wasn’t keeping an eye on the situation. Had it been better at communicating with us, we would have had a better chance of making it home. As far as I’m concerned, the paltry warning was too little, too late.

Airline after airline started cutting flights and thousands of British nationals were left stranded. Tourists, holidaymakers and backpackers were all stuck in a foreign land because we trusted that we would be given fair warning by the government about the crisis as it unfolded, with surely enough time to make it home should things escalate. Booking another flight just felt like grasping at straws, especially as we had been told by the first two airlines that neither of our cancelled flights would be refunded.

As with so much I have read about the government’s response to coronavirus, I feel like we fell through a gap between the official messaging and the reality of the situation. Officially, while commercial flights were still running, we were at no point stranded and therefore non-eligible for repatriation. This is still the case. While airlines still operate flights back to London – I saw one from Bali for £4,500 – the government deems that it has no duty to act. By comparison, Germans and Canadians were almost immediately repatriated.

The German government is now even providing spaces on flights for British nationals – with onward flights provided from Germany to London. It’s no exaggeration to say that the Germans are doing more for Brits than Boris Johnson is.

Eventually, the message came from the British embassy via a Facebook group that a flight was being provided with special allowance transit through Hong Kong – whose airport had otherwise been closed. We were all strongly urged to take it. I signed up without a moment’s hesitation. At the airport, as I was handed my boarding pass, I felt as if I were being given a golden ticket. I could breathe for the first time in weeks. As we boarded the plane, I heard the sound of a guitar strumming. Six or seven airport staff broke into an impromptu chorus of Stand by Me. It was an incredibly emotional send-off, and almost everyone was crying.

Finally, we arrived in a very deserted Heathrow. I’m extremely relieved to see £75m has now been pledged to aid Britons stranded abroad. But I wonder how this money will be spent. To add final insult to injury, my boyfriend and I had to pay £1,760 each for our repatriation flights. I know first-hand how scared people still stuck abroad must feel. There were people in their late teens in Jakarta who had spent every penny of their own and their parents’ money trying to get home only to see their flights cancelled. I can only hope now that they will get the help and advice that they need.

Amelia Sandy is from Somerset and is waiting to start her undergraduate degree

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