The Balkan republic was placed in the UK government’s highest risk category because of concerns over coronavirus rates. Any arrivals after the deadline are obliged to pay around £2,000 to stay for 11 nights in a quarantine hotel.
In response, easyJet moved its planned Monday departure from the resort airport of Tivat to London Gatwick a day earlier. Tickets for the one-way flight, departing at 5.30pm on Sunday were selling at £265.
Passengers boarded the Airbus A320 operating EZY8522 as planned. But the journey did not proceed as expected.
“After sitting on the plane for three hours we were told there was a ‘minor technical fault’,” said one of the travellers, Joanna Lonergan.
“According to the pilot the fault had actually been fixed but the plane couldn’t be signed off because the engineer wasn’t registered with ‘the company’.
“Tivat airport closed at 8pm. Just before it closed the pilot came out and said arrangements might be being made to ‘drive us all up the coast and get us back to the UK tonight’’.”
The passengers were told to leave the aircraft and collect their luggage. Eventually three coaches turned up to take them across the Croatian border and the short distance to Dubrovnik airport.
As The Independent has reported, some passengers who had residency in the UK but were another nationality expressed concerns – saying they would not be allowed in to an EU nation, and asking for the plane to be sent to the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica, instead.
The buses reached the border around 10.30pm, with the passengers waiting on board.
Ms Lonergan said: “easyJet staff disappeared with those who needed a visa to get into Croatia. The rest of us were left on board, doors locked, with no idea what was going on and no food, water or toilet facilities.”
Two of the British passengers, twins Luke and Hugh Bellamy, spoke Serbian. They were able to negotiate with the Croatian border staff.
Eventually 155 UK passengers were allowed to cross but others were refused entry, with their passports stamped “Denied”.
“Parents with young children were left on the side of the road as the buses pulled away,” said Ms Lonergan. The rejected passengers were taken back to a hotel in Tivat.
Another passenger, Alexia, said: “Communication was non-existent. It was heartbreaking seeing our fellow passengers not just being left in the cold but abandoned to return back some with young children.
“Why did we cross the border rather than go to Podgorica? We would have arrived earlier.”
One bus arrived at Dubrovnik airport at 1.20am, local time, which was 12.20am, UK time. The following bus arrived at 2am local time – 1am British time, just three hours before the deadline.
“The plane was tense after boarding. One man near the front demanded a guarantee we’d make it back to UK by 4am and threatened to get off the plane if not,” said Ms Lonergan. Pressure from fellow passengers persuaded him otherwise.
The plane left shortly before 2am for what is normally a 2 hour, 40 minute flight. Passengers were offered a free soft drink and snack.
Ms Lonergan described the easyJet captain as “amazing,” adding: “Take off was brutal – people being sick and the engines really going. He Tannoyed just before landing to say ‘This thing doesn’t fly any faster’.”
Passengers cheered on arrival when he announced, “Ladies and gentleman, welcome to London Gatwick. The time now is 3.58am”.
The pilot is said to have described the journey as “the most stressful three hours of my life”.
While passengers were duly grateful for avoiding 11 nights in hotel quarantine, Ms Lonergan said that, with the exception of the crew on the flight, easyJet “failed to show any semblance of humanity”.
She said: “There were families left behind late at night with aggressive officers despite being reassured they’d make it through OK. No translator, no food or water and no toilets. Utterly disgusting.
“Of course this was a difficult situation and many people worked hard to get us home, but there was no communication and no reassurance throughout.”
A spokesperson for easyJet said: “We are very sorry for this extremely difficult situation which arose from the country status change to ‘red ‘and the technical issue.
“We did everything we could including flying a second repatriation aircraft in to try and get all customers back to the UK in time for the deadline.
“We are very grateful to our pilots and crew for managing to bring back 155 customers back just ahead of the deadline.
“We feel for those customers who we not permitted to enter Croatia by border authorities and so are supporting them with their additional accommodation and travel needs.”
The airline has confirmed it will be paying each passenger £350 in compensation due under air passengers’ rights rules for the long delay.
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