Ryanair and the owner of three major airports are preparing to sue the government over the UK’s border policy.
The low-cost airline and Manchester Airports Group say they will lodge High Court papers on Thursday to seek a judicial review over the transparency of the traffic-light system for international travel.
The current framework allows only passengers returning from fewer than a dozen countries to avoid quarantine, and was recently tightened to remove Portugal, the only main tourist hub.
The court papers will argue that the government should clearly explain how it makes decisions when categorising countries, given the “dramatic” impact these decisions have on the aviation industry. MAG owns Manchester, London Stansted and East Midlands airports.
“The current opaque way that decisions are being made is undermining consumer confidence in the traffic-light system and makes it impossible for airports, airlines and other travel companies to plan for the recovery of international travel or work with the government on future reviews,” the two companies said.
The aviation industry broadly welcomed the traffic-light system but was disappointed that only a small number of countries were put on the “green list” last month.
That disappointment turned to anger when Portugal was taken off the list this month, leaving holidaymakers’ plans in chaos and airlines ripping up their schedules. Passengers returning from countries on the green list do not have to quarantine when they arrive back in the UK.
The travel industry also questioned why several countries and territories with low infection rates were not added to the green list.
Ministers have argued that they are taking a cautious approach that prioritises unwinding domestic restrictions in the UK. They have said that the decision to remove Portugal from the green list was made amid worries over the spread of Covid-19 variants.
The Department for Transport did not comment on the legal proceedings but said it was trying to “balance the timely reopening of international travel while safeguarding public health and protecting the vaccine rollout”.
It added: “Our traffic-light system cautiously manages the risk of new variants, and we have provided £7bn to help support the industry during the pandemic.”
But Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary said the traffic-light system was a “shambles” that was “causing untold damage to the aviation industry and frustrating and upsetting millions of British families”.
While UK holidaymakers are advised by the government to stay at home, airlines have reported stronger demand from continental Europe, where travel restrictions are set to loosen within the EU from July 1 with the introduction of digital health passes.
Charlie Cornish, chief executive of MAG, said recent developments suggested that the UK government was “now unwilling to open up international travel by putting low-risk countries on the green list”.
“The government is not being open and we simply cannot understand how it is making decisions that are fundamental to our ability to plan and to giving customers the confidence to book travel ahead,” he said.
The legal challenge, first reported by The Telegraph, is not the first Ryanair has launched during the crisis. The carrier has also used the EU courts to challenge state-aid handed out to national flag-carriers.