Last week, British Airways debarred me from a flight from London to Rome. They were not sure my purpose provided a good enough reason to leave the island. I am a sea captain.
This week, a friend of mine flew to Warsaw from Johannesburg (via Amsterdam), then on to Italy, (via Frankfurt). Once airborne on the last leg of this journey, Alitalia handed him a form to declare his purpose for travel under lockdown: ‘to eat some of that famous fire oven made pizza.’
I feel compelled to defend the simple honour of our national airline. Like so many, they dutifully abide by laws which, if they exist at all, are being broken elsewhere.
Of the countries able to afford extravagant lockdown policies, most will return to normal simply by ceasing to enforce them. The trouble is not that the UK is governed by the rule of law, but that it seeks to level its laws with neighbours which are not. This is an abuse of a uniquely British cultural phenomenon: where rules are uncertain or absurd, our citizens are still compliant enough to abide by their spirit at the expense of their neighbour.
So the scene went like this: I approached the check in desk with my COVID negative test and the various papers currently required by the Italian authorities to enter (the same documents which have previously enabled me to fly under lockdown). The checkin clerk exclaimed, with a Omuru-onwa rollick: “We ah not in the European Union any more! You need a vissah to traval to Italy!”
I explained that she was mistaken – British citizens do not need a visa to travel to Europe’s Schengen zone – and was there perhaps a real reason I was not permitted to fly?
“You need a letter from your captain!” She posited.
“I am the captain.”
“Nuuh! You can no’ fly! We ‘ave to cancel your res-er-vay-shun!”
I glanced down the row of check-in desks. In a scene reminiscent of something I once witnessed in Havana airport’s customs zone, aviation officials were holding the sword of Damocles over weeping families, furious businessmen and hysterical women. I reflected on the honesty of purpose represented by the green combat fatigues and leather pistol holsters. The party line is so much creepier when clothed in Dolores Umbridge BA livery.
Retrieving my passport, I approached a more intelligent clerk. The game was given away, of course – but I wanted to hear a better premise for the same decision. My case was deliberated by an on-site legal team until the flight check-in was about to close.
To their great credit, BA admitted responsibility for their actions – a quality which I would not expect from the sorts of airlines which have let me fly during these lockdowns. They weren’t sure whether I technically qualified to fly, but suggested I try again – perhaps with a letter from the Italian embassy, although this was neither a requirement nor a guarantee of success.
So I thanked the nice lady, gave her the tip I usually reserve for the pilot and explained that, as I had grown fond of cooking and gardening, Heathrow Terminal Five would have to accept my apologies until after the lockdown.
When I asked for written confirmation of their decision, BA’s bind was illustrated by their follow-up email:
“Unfortunately we’re unable to provide you with the information you’ve asked for… Unfortunately we’re unable to handle any further queries that may arise as a result of you receiving this document… Any disclosure of this email or of the parties to it, any copying, distribution… is prohibited, and maybe [sic] unlawful.”
‘Maybe unlawful,’ of course, is the reason for their defensive stance in the first place.
Advanced societies have to pull their finger out and stop this nonsense. It concerns a mariner less if he may leave an island than a citizen if he can trust scrupulous national firms to honour their contracts.
I voted for the British rule of law in our controversial independence referendum, so I’ll wait until my Peonies have come up – but even the British won’t abide by their government’s abuse of power forever.
We have a civic duty to disregard laws which abuse the goodwill of compatriots and loyal national institutions.