Foreign residents wrongly told to buy Covid tests before flying back to Sweden

Several readers have told The Local that their airlines refused to let them fly unless they could present a negative Covid-19 test, despite being covered by exemptions from testing requirements.

Foreign residents wrongly told to buy Covid tests before flying back to Sweden
File photo of passengers at Copenhagen Airport, which is used by a lot of people who live in southern Sweden. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Since December 28th, Sweden has required all travellers over the age of 12 to provide proof of a negative test for Covid-19 less than 48 hours old, unless covered by an exemption. 

The requirement is due to be removed later this week, less than four weeks after it was introduced, but is at the time of writing still in effect.

Swedish citizens and residents of Sweden are currently exempt from the testing requirements, and residents of the Swedish regions of Skåne, Blekinge and Halland are also exempt from Danish testing requirements – meaning that international Swedish residents living in border regions who fly to Copenhagen Airport and take the Öresund train onwards to Sweden do not need to show a test.

However, several readers have told The Local that when they turned up at check-in, their airline refused to acknowledge these exemptions and demanded that passengers show negative tests before allowing them to check in to their flights, meaning that they were forced to rush to onsite testing facilities at airports in order to get results back in time before their flights departed.

A British reader living in Lund, who did not wish to be named, said that he and his wife were flying from Manchester to Copenhagen on January 3rd, and were told by SAS at check-in that they needed to provide negative tests.

The couple should have been exempted from the testing requirement because they were transiting through Denmark and leaving the country within 24 hours; and additionally because they reside in one of the border regions.

The exemptions for border residents and transit travellers are outlined on the websites of both the Danish Ministry of Health and the country’s Coronasmitte official information page for travellers.

“SAS insisted we spend a very stressful hour at Manchester Airport getting £80-worth of unnecessary antigen tests or else they wouldn’t let us on the plane,” he told The Local.

The couple tried to explain the exemptions to ground staff, to no avail: “We had monitored the regulations about flying through Copenhagen to Sweden but they would not accept our arguments. The three ground staff couldn’t understand how we could get from Copenhagen to Lund. Would we fly? I explained there was a bridge and a train station directly below the airport. We would travel directly to Sweden in 35 minutes”.

Instead, they were told that they could not board without a negative test.

They managed to get to the test centre – in a different part of the airport – get tested, and get through security before the flight had finished boarding, but were still missing one set of results just minutes before the flight was due to board.

“We got there, and the woman asked ‘have you got your results?’ Well, my wife has, but not me. ‘Can you check again?’ So I’m now thinking: ‘Okay, okay, this is it, I stay behind and she goes ahead’ – so I check again, and ‘ping!’ the results come through, negative, we got on the plane – I think there was one person behind us. Click, the doors are closed.”

“We were like zombies! You couldn’t believe it, we did not have one word to exchange with each other. We were completely done.”

He said he experienced arrhythmia for a number of hours once the couple had returned to Sweden, which he suspects was caused by the stress of the experience. Arrhythmia is a serious medical condition where the heart beats irregularly, which can lead to sudden cardiac arrest or stroke.

“It almost killed us,” he said. “We are both 75 years old and each of us has a chronic medical condition. My wife almost collapsed and I had heart problems during the night. We spent the next day and a half in bed, by Wednesday evening we were beginning to feel more or less human.”

His wife has a chronic inflammatory disease, which makes exertion painful. She also has breathing issues which were exacerbated when the couple were rushing from check-in, to the test centre, through security and to the gate, with her husband at one point running ahead just enough to be able to shout back to her that the gate hadn’t closed.

He has contacted SAS to request compensation, but has yet to hear back – an automated e-mail said that he would hear a response in between six to eight weeks.

“The daft thing was, when we arrived in Copenhagen Airport, nobody wanted to see anything,” he said. “You show your passport – as you’re coming from outside the EU – you get on the train and then they say the train will stop at Hyllie [Sweden] where border guards will check your passports, vaccination certificates, all kind of stuff, the train stops there for 10 minutes, nobody gets on, and then after 10 minutes, off we go again. Nobody wanted to see anything. It was SAS who were the bottleneck, SAS themselves were doing the policing of the border, not the border guards.”

Another reader travelling from Chicago O’Hare to Copenhagen with her partner was also told to present negative tests at check-in. As border residents and transit passengers, the couple were covered by Danish and Swedish testing exemptions, but they had chosen to get tested as a precaution from a free test provider in the US, so did not need to find a place to get tested in the airport and were able to check in without issues.

The Local’s readers are not the only ones who have been affected by this problem – I had the same issue when travelling from Manchester to Malmö with my family via Copenhagen Airport on December 29th, as The Local Denmark reported here. SAS ground staff wrongly told us that the exemptions did not apply as we were “not transiting” – due to the fact that we were leaving the airport area in order to take a train.

However, Danish testing rules explicitly state that “persons in transit through Denmark departing within 24 hours of entry (e.g. Swedish air travellers who use Denmark as a hub)” are exempt from testing requirements.

The Local contacted SAS for comment, and received the following response:

“During the pandemic there have been different types of restrictions – and new rules and restrictions which have been removed and then reintroduced – so it’s understandable that for us, other flight companies and, of course, for travellers above all, who need to travel and cross borders, that this has clearly been challenging and difficult in many ways,” said Freja Annamatz, head of media relations for SAS Sweden.

“This is also a situation where we find ourselves in a very travel-intense period, where we suddenly have new restrictions, and we can only apologise that these customers have been given the wrong information in these cases.”

Annamatz advised affected passengers to submit a claim for any costs incurred: “They can submit a claim so that we can see if there are costs which we should reimburse – tests, for example – if it is the case that we have made a mistake, which obviously seems to be the case here.”

“It is difficult for me to comment on what has happened in these single cases – generally, we do everything we can to make sure that the information on our websites and the sources we refer to are as correct as possible – and then we also obviously need to have internal communication about this and make sure that our colleagues know about this.”

“This can be a challenge when things happen very quickly, and over Christmas and New Year there were a lot of new people, a lot of people off sick, where we have had to train new people or substitutes at short notice, for example. Obviously, this sort of situation should not occur, which we apologise for. But, the background is that, since restrictions occur with such short notice, sometimes it happens in individual cases that customers receive incorrect information, and we do apologise,” she stressed.

Annamatz also said that airlines can be subject to fines if passengers are turned away from border control due to incorrect documents.

“The whole check-in process has become much more complicated, because there is so much documentation that needs to be looked at, and also the rules around what is required. In many cases it’s the case that flight companies are responsible for making sure that passengers make it to their destination, it can be a case of fines and other types of reprimands, and in the worst case, passengers are not allowed in to the country.”

“So, like I said, we are extremely sorry, we apologise to these customers who have received the wrong information, but we do everything we can to make sure that all the information from our channels and the sources we refer to is as correct as possible.”

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EXPLAINED: What’s behind the queues at Stockholm Arlanda airport?

Travellers are reporting queues over an hour long at Stockholm's Arlanda airport. What's going on and how long is it expected to last?

EXPLAINED: What's behind the queues at Stockholm Arlanda airport?

What’s the situation at Stockholm Arlanda airport? 

On Friday morning, there were queues lasting over an hour at Arlanda’s security controls. By 10am, they had been reduced to below half an hour, according to the live update the airport operator, Swedavia, maintains on its website here

Swedavia first began warning of long queue times on Monday, saying the queues were the result of a resurgence in travel combined with staffing shortages at Avarn, the contractor responsible for managing the security checks. 

“The wait times are due to a staff shortage with our security services contractor – which is caused by ongoing recruitment and absences due to illness,” the airport said on its website

What are travellers saying? 

Twitter is predictably awash with angry comments from travellers, including some well-known commentators. 

The terrorism researcher Magnus Ranstorp resorted to capital letters to bemoan the “CATASTROPHE” at the airport. 

The Financial Times’ Nordic Correspondent also compared the situation at Arlanda unfavourably with the smooth controls at Helsinki Airport

“Never seen anything like it and sounds like might be worse today. In Terminal 5 both queues, SAS and Norwegian, were well over 100 metres long,” he told The Local. “It took me 50 minutes to get through security. Don’t think it’s ever taken more than 10 in the Nordics before.” 

What should you do if you are travelling through Stockholm Arlanda at the moment? 

Swedavia recommends that you arrive “well in advance” when taking a flight. You can contact your airline here to find out when their check-ins and baggage drops open.  

Swedavia also recommends that you do everything possible to speed up the check-in process, such as:

  • checking in from home
  • packing hand baggage to make screening faster
  • checking the need for a face covering in advance
  • checking that you have the right travel documents ready 

If you can’t check in from home, Swedavia recommends seeing if you can check in using an automated machine at the airport.

What is the airport doing to to improve the situation? 

On June 15th, the airport is reopening Terminal 4, which might help somewhat, although the airport warns that as staffing is the major problem, having more space will not fully solve the problem over the summer. 

In a press release issued on Friday, Svedavia’s chief operations officer, Peder Grunditz, said opening a new terminal was “an important measure”. 

“We are now going to have the three biggest terminals back in operation for the first time since the pandemic,” he said. 

The company and Avarn are also making “big recruitment efforts” and taking “operational measures” to improve the queue situation, although the “challenging labour market” made that difficult. 

When will waiting times return to normal? 

In his press release, Grunditz conceded that waiting times were not likely to return to normal during the summer, due to the rapid growth in the number of people taking flights. 

“Even though we expect gradual improvements, the queuing situation is going to continue to be challenging during periods over the summer,” he said.