The head of British Airways warns that the new Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) System puts United Kingdom (UK) aviation at a competitive disadvantage.
Sean Doyle, CEO of the UK-based airline, expressed worries that the new ETA scheme will discourage passengers from transiting through London’s Heathrow Airport.
Doyle said the UK ETA is an added cost and may cause possible delays for travelers who do not need a visa for short trips and transiting in the country.
“[The ETA could] put carriers like British Airways, who rely on connecting traffic, at a competitive disadvantage to European hubs. We need to ensure by stealth we don’t make our industry uncompetitive,” Doyle expressed at the 2023 Airlines conference held in Westminster, London, on 20 November 2023.
Airlines UK, the trade body for UK registered airlines, and the Board of Airline Representatives (BAR) UK, the airline industry association in the UK, previously expressed the same sentiment.
They argued that charging transiting visa-exempt passengers, especially those not going through border control, is unjust. Technically, they are not crossing any borders.
Why connecting flights are vital for Heathrow airport
Approximately half of the traffic at Heathrow for British Airways consists of connecting travelers. This includes businesspeople who cannot afford any delay in their travel.
With UK ETA implementation, passengers transiting or connecting through London’s busiest airport may opt for layover flights in Dubai or Istanbul instead.
Passengers moving between gates at an airport, without going through border control, usually do not need to meet the requirements of the connecting destination.
Heathrow also relies heavily on connecting flights to maintain a significant amount of traffic and thus be considered a mega-hub. It plays a crucial role in boosting tourism and trade.
Without the heavy volume of connecting flights it serves, London-based travelers wouldn’t have easy access to destinations around the world.
How the UK’s ETA system works
The new digital travel permit is mandatory only for foreigners who do not need a visa for short visits to the UK. These are citizens of countries who enjoy visa waiver status.
The ETA is also required for visa-exempt travelers transiting in the UK, even if they do not need to go through border control.
Each UK ETA application costs £10, a small fee compared to other similar travel permits imposed by other countries. Visa-free travelers must apply for the digital travel permit at least three days before their flight.
Possible delays can only happen if passengers fail to obtain an ETA ahead of time. Airlines will not allow them to board their flight to the UK without the proper travel permit.
Some applications may also take longer than three days. Most applicants who wait longer are due to mistakes in the application and other issues.
However, once passengers have an ETA for the UK, it is valid for two years. The holder may transit at London’s Heathrow Airport multiple times within the ETA’s validity period.
The travel permit is also digitally stored in passports, so travelers do not need to bring a paper printout. Still, UK Border Control will have the final say on the ETA holder’s entry into the country.
UK ETA, ETIAS, and transiting travelers
The ETA system aims to enhance border security by allowing the UK government to log and pre-screen travelers. This prevents individuals who pose a security threat from entering the country.
According to the UK Home Office, an essential aspect of achieving that objective is requiring ETAs for transit travelers. It will help deter individuals from using connecting flights to bypass the proper visa application process.
The UK government has been collaborating closely with airlines, maritime companies, and rail providers to guarantee the system’s effective implementation.
Passengers coming to or from the UK should also keep themselves informed about all relevant travel and immigration policies that may impact them.
By 2025, the European Union (EU) is slated to introduce a similar travel permit system known as the European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS).
This requirement will also apply to individuals traveling visa-free for short trips or transiting through the Schengen Zone.