Exclusive: Thousands of passengers unlawfully denied boarding because the UK government misinterpreted EU borders code
Thousands of travellers are set to claim millions of pounds from airlines and holiday firms after being wrongly denied trips to Europe.
Since the UK left the European Union, The Independent has repeatedly warned the government that it is misrepresenting post-Brexit passport validity rules.
Two European Union rules for “third country nationals” apply. Travellers are told: “You will need a passport valid for at least three months after the date you intend to leave the EU country you are visiting [and] which was issued within the previous 10 years.”
The two conditions are independent of each other. But the UK government claims otherwise, and many travel firms have followed its online advice.
Holiday companies that have followed the government’s incorrect interpretation of EU legislation, and refused travel to passengers whose documents were valid, now face a barrage of claims for compensation.
Britain’s biggest holiday company, Tui, has now changed its policy to comply with European law – but only after mistakenly denying boarding to a significant number of passengers.
Vanessa Pritchard-Wilkes is one of many holidaymakers wrongly denied boarding this summer. Last Friday at Birmingham airport she was turned away from a flight to Tenerife by Tui staff, even though her passport met the EU’s rules on validity.
She and her husband, Chris, had spent more than £1,600 on a holiday. The couple checked in without problem at Birmingham airport, but at the departure gate they were told they could not travel because her passport was invalid for travel to Spain.
With a passport issued less than 10 years ago and valid for more than three months beyond the day they were due to fly home, Ms Pritchard-Wilkes was perfectly entitled to fly to any European Union nation.
But she says she was told by staff that if she had been allowed to fly, “Tui would have been fined and we would have been kept at the airport and flown home on the next available flight.”
Ms Pritchard-Wilkes, a housing professional from Sutton Coldfield, then spent £177 obtaining a new passport – which was not legally necessary –and finally travelled out to her holiday in the Canary Islands four days late.
A spokesperson for Tui said: “Following new information provided, we can confirm that we have now changed our policy accordingly. Customers will not be denied boarding on the basis that their passport needs to meet both conditions dependently.”
While the UK was in the European Union, British passports were valid up to and including the expiry date. Many passports were issued for over 10 years, with up to nine months’ free credit added for any unspent validity on renewal.
While this practice has now ended, millions of passports issued before September 2018 are still in circulation with extra validity.
The UK government asserts: “The three months you need when leaving a country must be within 10 years of the passport issue date.”
On this reckoning, a British passport issued more than nine years, nine months earlier could not be used for travel to the EU.
But the European Commission has confirmed to The Independent that the government’s interpretation is wrong. The passport must simply meet the two conditions independently.
For example, someone with a passport issued on 2 October 2011 that is valid to 2 April 2022 would be able to travel out to the EU any time up to 1 October 2021. They could stay up to 90 days, until 30 December 2021.
The Independent has heard multiple cases of travellers whose passports meet these conditions being turned away.
Those affected are people whose passports were issued less than 10 years ago and, on the intended date of return from the EU, had at least three months validity remaining.
Passengers who were wrongly denied boarding can now seek compensation from airlines and holiday companies. Claims are likely to total millions of pounds, at a time when travel firms’ finances are under severe pressure.
Under air passengers’ rights rules, a properly documented passenger who is denied boarding on a flight to Europe is entitled to either £220 or £350 in cash, depending on distance, plus a full refund of the entire fare.
But since many family holidays were ruined by the misapplication of passport rules, some claims could run into thousands of pounds.
Even after The Independent provided evidence from Brussels that the government’s interpretation is wrong, the Home Office has refused to correct it.
A government spokesperson said: “Now that the UK has left the EU, the rules for travel to Europe have changed and we must follow the regulations on passport validity set out in the Schengen Borders Code.
“This code does not make it clear if the rules on passports being issued within the last ten years, and rules on them being valid for at least three months after the date you intend to leave the EU country you are visiting, are interdependent.
“To avoid the possibility of citizens encountering difficulties at any particular border when complying with these rules, our advice continues to show that any extra months added to a ten-year passport may not count.
“We make no apology for taking a risk averse approach to ensure our citizens do not face issues at borders.”
Ms Pritchard-Wilkes said: “Quite why they are taking this ’risk averse’ approach baffles me.
“We are lucky in that Tui offered us an alternative holiday but I am not sure that is the same for others who have probably suffered financially. “
The government itself could face claims from travellers who paid hundreds of pounds for unnecessary rush renewals, because the online advice at gov.uk wrongly asserted that their passports were too old. In addition, firms that wrongly turned passengers away after following inaccurate official advice may seek recompense from the government.
The Independent has contacted the leading airlines and tour operators used by British travellers to try to ensure that no more travellers are wrongfully turned away.
In addition, they have been asked what steps they may take proactively to compensate customers who lost flights or holidays as a result of an incorrect rule being applied.