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Glimmers of hope: the mood at Luton airport as England restarts foreign travel

Luton airport at 6am on the day that foreign holiday travel begins again. The halls are quiet. Many shops are shuttered. At the easyJet desk the staff seem relieved that things are quieter than expected: the mass brawl last week was a nasty shock. Standing on the escalator to the departure lounge, I suddenly realise why I feel disoriented: I have not been on a moving staircase for 15 months. People stand well apart, but are quick to chat.

In Pret a Manger I meet Abby, British but a resident in Spain, who is trying for the second time in four days to fly to Málaga. “I had the wrong letter proving I needed to travel,” she said. She had started remote working before the pandemic which, in retrospect, seemed like a good decision, but the new bureaucratic demands can be difficult and slow to negotiate.

For the moment this new kind of travel, with extra letters and certificates, all the new paperwork and barriers, feels like something revived from an earlier age of travelling: when passengers carried all kinds of extra paperwork: copies of birth certificates, battered (and no doubt very unhygienic) vaccination records, letters proving you had money in your pocket and a home to go to.

Luton airport.
Luton airport as foreign holiday travel restarts. Photograph: Kevin Rushby

The travel industry is certainly pinning a lot of hope on this day. Alan French, the CEO of Thomas Cook, tells me: “Holiday bookings have tripled in the past week and Portugal has been the most popular as customers have booked last-minute getaways to the Algarve, Madeira and Lisbon. By the time the summer starts in earnest towards July, we’re confident that most of the Mediterranean hotspots including Spain and Greece will be on the green list.”

Not every business has made it through the crisis. In the airport many shops look closed, high street names that are gone, perhaps forever: Dixons Travel (all 35 UK airport shops), Victoria’s Secret (25 UK shops in administration), Bella Italia (collapsed July 2020) and Accessorize (went into administration in June 2020). Walking through an airport now seems very similar to the average UK high street: patches of light and life amid long dark stretches.

Some businesses have survived, after anxious moments. Matthew Pack, the CEO of Holiday Extras which provides, among other things, airport parking, transfers and accommodation, had some dark days. “January 2021 was a low point,” Pack told me a few days before I travel. “We had 500 staff furloughed and felt we were facing six more months of it.” The announcement of the green list came as a huge relief. “We had the best day of business in six months.”

Luton airport itself certainly needs the good times to return. Travel and tourism are major employers with TUI and EasyJet both based here. The one thing that the travel industry fears is another setback, another lockdown. Even now the financial restraints on travel are considerable. To make this trip to the Algarve I needed a negative PCR Covid test, which cost £200, and I will need to get a second one while in Portugal, at €100.

For many, those extra costs are simply too much, but Noel Josephides, the chairman of Sunvil, is cautiously optimistic: “Once visitors start coming back from successful holidays, I expect confidence to return. I pray we do not have the stop/go problems we had last year.”

The mixture of nervousness and hope is reflected in the departures lounge. People skirt each other warily, but eventually start distanced conversations that usually begin with an agreement that everything is a bit weird. By 8am, the cafes are getting busier with queues forming. “The public has been unnecessarily frightened of travel,” says Josephides. “Destinations will welcome us with open arms.”

Many people feel that because everyone has had a negative Covid test and is wearing a mask, it helps allay any fears. At the departure gate, Martha Prudênciu is looking forward to seeing her family in Portugal after almost a year. “The worst thing has been the uncertainty. Now I am just so pleased we can travel again.”

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As I walk towards the plane, my pockets full of extra paperwork, I am feeling the same.

When we are airborne, I sit back and breathe a sigh of relief. Everything has gone smoothly: no delays, no long queues or fights, no setbacks at all. Then the steward comes over. “Have you filled out your health declaration? Not even online?” He hands me a form. The paper trail just got a little longer.

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