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Inside the first flight to green-list Portugal

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First flight: Ryanair’s 7am departure from Stansted to Faro (Simon Calder)
First flight: Ryanair’s 7am departure from Stansted to Faro (Simon Calder)

Back to the USSR: the hassle and complexity involved in even a short hop to Portugal is at least as bad as travelling to the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

Within hours of the UK government unlocking leisure travel after a 19-week ban on holidays, 30 flights departed from eight airports across England to Portugal – the only major European country on the “green list” of quarantine-free destinations.

Fares for the first Ryanair departure from Stansted to Faro were cut to £22 in a bid to lure passengers on board, but in the end only 150 of the 189 seats were filled.

Every one of those passengers had spent significantly more on a Covid test. On Friday afternoon, the Portuguese government announced British holidaymakers would be allowed in, but only if they could produce a negative result from a “gold standard” PCR test. The authorities added that it must be taken within 72 hours of departure, but for Monday morning passengers that was irrelevant – they had less than that to source the necessary test and wait for the result.

At dawn on Saturday I travelled to Heathrow airport; not to fly anywhere, but simply because the testing centre promised results within 48 hours. I paid four times the cost of my air fare for the test, and the negative certificate arrived 26 hours later.

I also had to complete Portugal’s passenger locator card, to generate the QR code necessary to enter the country.

Stansted airport at 6am felt about a quarter busy compared with normal levels of activity. The security check was friendly and swift, and around half the shops and catering outlets were open.

At departure gate 49, the ground staff had their work cut out. Ryanair prides itself on stripping away airport procedures and cutting out the paperwork: it was the first airline to demand that passengers checked in themselves on line. But now there are two lines at the gate: a “pre-queue” in which Covid tests are checked, in exchange for another piece of paper that you show to the gate agent, along with your passport, to be allowed on to the plane.

On the long walk to the gate it was clear that some passengers had neglected to take the Covid test – or had simply run out of time waiting for the result. They will not be travelling today. Yet conversely two passengers made it all the way through the airport to gate 49 without masks, and were allowed on board only after other travellers handed them their spare face coverings.

On board, the service was friendly and professional – though an overnight foul-up meant there was no tea or coffee on board. The plane left, and arrived, five minutes early, touching down just after its stablemate from Manchester.

The summer is on. Your papers, please.

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