UK ban on UAE flights: the options and rights for affected travellers

The UK government has banned all flights from the UAE.

Normally many thousands of people travel each day between Britain and Dubai, the hub for Emirates, as well as Abu Dhabi where Etihad is based.

People with legitimate reasons to travel have been told to find alternative routes.

But travellers face many logistical and legal problems. These are the key questions and answers.

What has changed?

The United Arab Emirates has been added to the UK government’s “red list”. The Department for Transport (DfT) says the aim is “to prevent the spread of the new variant originally identified in South Africa into the UK”.

All passenger flights to the UK have been cancelled until further notice. But British and Irish nationals, plus those with right of residence in the UK, will be allowed to travel here if they have been in the UAE in the past 10 days.

Anyone allowed in must self-isolate along with their household for 10 days. They will not be able to use the “Test to Release” option which allows early ending of quarantine with a negative coronavirus test on day five or later.

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Don’t arrivals have to go into hotel quarantine?

The government has not yet set up its so-called “managed isolation” scheme and there is no indication of when it might start – nor how much warning travellers might get.

Therefore many people in the UAE, or planning to travel through it, are seeking to return early in a bid to avoid hotel quarantine and the attendant cost, thought to be up to £1,500 per person.

I’m booked on a flight to the UK from the UAE. What are my options?

By far the largest number of flights to and from the UAE are provided by Emirates. The airline says: “Affected customers should contact their booking agent or Emirates call centre for rebooking.”

Etihad is telling passengers: “If your plans have been affected, we’ll keep your ticket open for you to book whenever you’re ready. You don’t have to contact us straight away to change your flight.”

What options will be open to me?

Whether you are starting your journey to the UK in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, or from a point in Africa, Asia or Australasia, the government is effectively instructing you to travel via a third country.

Clearly you must comply with the prevailing rules in that nation.

From Dubai to London, feasible hubs include Istanbul, Cairo, Paris and Frankfurt.

Abu Dhabi to Manchester offers fewer options, but Doha and Paris are possibilities.

For longer trips, many countries are keeping their aviation hubs open, including Singapore, Qatar and Bahrain.

Who pays?

Good question. The DfT insists: “It is the responsibility of the airline to offer travellers either an alternative route or provide a refund so alternate bookings can be made.”

Anyone booked on British Airways, currently the only UK airline serving Dubai, can expect to be rebooked free of charge on another carrier under air passenger rights rules.

But for flights booked into the UK on Emirates and Etihad, the rules do not apply. You can expect a refund on the unused segment, but if you had a £400 return ticket then you might only get, say, £160 back because so much of the original fare was Air Passenger Duty.

A one-way flight via a different hub is likely to cost at least twice as much.

Travel insurance may cover the difference, but many policies will not.

When might flights resume?

The government has given no guidance.

A spokesperson for Emirates said: We look forward to resuming passenger services when conditions allow, and will continue to work closely with all relevant authorities in this regard.”

Will the ban do any good? 

That is yet to be seen. The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, revealed earlier this month that only one in 1,000 of the coronavirus cases in England in December was brought in from abroad – and that was a month with plenty of people travelling, including 1.1 million through Heathrow.

Today the figure is likely to be far lower, due to the diminishing number of arrivals to the UK.

Etihad, based in Abu Dhabi, says: “We’re the only airline in the world to make Covid-19 testing mandatory before every flight.

“Since August 2020, 100 per cent of our guests have tested negative before they fly.”

What about travelling from the UK to the UAE?

That is subject to you being allowed to leave the country; you must show why you qualify for an exemption to the general rule banning travel. Work, education and family care trips are allowed.

While Etihad says passenger flights from the UK remain unaffected and will operate as scheduled, arrivals in Abu Dhabi are obliged to self-isolate for 10 days.

Where else is on the ‘red list’?

Burundi and Rwanda were added to the high-risk register at the same time as the UAE. They join a dozen other African nations: Angola, Botswana, Democratic Congo, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Flights from three island nations off the coast of Africa – Cape Verde, Mauritius and the Seychelles – have also been banned.

The entire continent of South America, as well as Panama, is on the list – adding 14 more countries.

The most significant nation, though, in terms of British visitors and expatriates, is Portugal. At present it is the only European country subject to a flight ban.

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