Plane travel and coronavirus: New airport transit rules leaves passengers stranded in London

A New Zealand man is stranded in London with no home or job after being denied boarding for his flight to Hong Kong because he didn't have a printed boarding pass for his onward flight to Auckland.

Joel Nixon, who has been living in London for the past two years, booked a "pricey" flight to Auckland via Frankfurt and Hong Kong through online travel agency GotoGate about a month ago as his visa was set to expire, and he didn't "see many reasons to stay in the UK, especially with the travel restrictions".

The July 31 flight, operated by Swiss Air to Hong Kong and Air New Zealand to Auckland, was cancelled two to three weeks before departure but "after having to heavily pressure the [GotoGate] customer service people", he was rebooked on a flight the following day.

Arriving at Heathrow Airport on August 1, Swiss Air staff told Nixon the Frankfurt to Hong Kong leg of his journey had been cancelled, but rebooked him on a direct flight to Hong Kong with British Airways that same day.

When he went to check-in for the Hong Kong flight, however, he said he and two other Kiwi passengers were barred from boarding because they did not have printed boarding passes for their connecting flight to Auckland.

"[The] issue was that, according to new rules in Hong Kong, passengers flying into Hong Kong for connecting flights must have already completed check-in for their connecting flight before touching down, as opposed to regular practice where we could check-in at the Hong Kong airport," the 24-year-old said. "If this wasn't done we would be turned away on landing."

Hong Kong suspended airport transit services on March 25 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, resuming them on June 15 with new restrictions.

Under the new rules, transit passengers can travel with multiple airlines but must have all legs of their journey on the same ticket, a spokesperson for Hong Kong International Airport said. They must check in for each leg, print out all boarding passes and bag tags, and have their bags checked through to their final destination before boarding their first flight, the spokesperson added.

"Airlines and passengers should also confirm in advance that passengers are able to enter the final destination."

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Nixon said British Airways staff told him he was unable to check in for his flight from Hong Kong to Auckland at Heathrow due to time constraints and incompatibilities in airline software.

"The staff at Heathrow Airport tried calling various airlines involved in our flights, as well as emailing the officials at the Hong Kong airport requesting assistance or concessions, but after an hour-and-a-half at the desk, we had to be turned away.

"They said that as the Hong Kong to Auckland flight was with Cathay Pacific but operated by Air New Zealand the reference numbers were inconsistent and the systems with Air New Zealand did not allow this check-in."

An Air New Zealand spokesperson said Nixon would not have been able to check in for both legs of his journey at Heathrow because the airline does not have a codeshare agreement with British Airways. The transfer desk check-in facility at Hong Kong International Airport remains closed, she said.

"It is the customer's responsibility to ensure they meet border restrictions when purchasing international travel," she said, adding that Air New Zealand reminds customers of this when they book directly with the airline online.

A British Airways spokesperson also said it is the customer's responsibility to check the entry requirements for their destination, adding that the airline states as much on its website and includes a link to the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office [FCO], which has detailed information.

"The FCO information on entry requirements to each country is constantly changing and being updated and this is why we ask customers to check before booking their flights and regularly before travel."

British Airways will notify customers of specific country requirements ahead of travel "wherever possible", he said.

"We are doing everything we can to help our customers in these unprecedented circumstances ... If customers decide not to travel, our team will help to postpone the trip or provide a voucher for future travel where eligible."

This is of little consolation to Nixon, however, who, at the time of writing, had just been told by Air New Zealand that he would not be able to transfer in Hong Kong as a result of the new restrictions, his Auckland-based father Bruce Nixon said.

Joel is now looking at options with different airlines, his father said.

Joel said he is "worried and upset by the prospect of being stuck in London for an indeterminate length of time with no job or home".

"The lease for my flat had ended on the day of my flight and I had quit my job the week before, so I am now left sleeping on friends' couches and eating into my savings until I can finally come back home."

Nixon feels it is "unfair" for airlines to say he should have done his research to ensure he could travel on the flight to Hong Kong.

"For starters this was all done through repeated rebookings by professionals who should understand better than me what border restrictions could arise...

"Even if I booked this whole trip myself from the beginning, this was not a restriction that is warned about like quarantine periods and visa and testing requirements.

This was due to a change in policy in Hong Kong that disrupted bookings with specific airlines who do not have integrated booking systems with Air New Zealand. No regular customer should be expected to even understand why such an issue should arise and certainly wouldn't think to check this all before flying."

As many Australians and Kiwis in the UK had working visas extended until August 31, Nixon said he wouldn't be surprised if others transiting through Hong Kong are also caught out by the new rules.

"Tickets for these flights are still being sold with no warning and a no-refund policy," he said. "When buying one of these tickets you are stuck with having to rebook with the same airline, which can be extremely limiting, especially if you are restricted to only being able to transfer at one location (ie Hong Kong airport) in order to get back to New Zealand...

"A situation like this with no compensation or accommodation provided could really ruin some people, and who knows how many Kiwis here are at such a pressure point?

Stuff

See also: 'Incredibly relieved': Australians in UK given last-minute visa extensions

See also: Thousands of Kiwis flying out of New Zealand every week

See also: Others can, so why can't Australians travel overseas?

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