British Airways Costa Rica

The Wider Impact of British Airways Dropping its Direct UK-Costa Rica Route

After British Airways announced the dropping of its route between London, UK and San Jose, Costa Rica, we look at the situation and hear from some of those most affected.

One of the biggest casualties to the global crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is travel. We see that on the ground here in Costa Rica, as tourism dries up, putting hundreds of thousands out of work. Demand has evaporated, as global lockdowns and restrictions make everything uncertain.

It’s not only hotels and tourist businesses on the ground suffering, though. The airlines themselves are under unprecedented pressure right now.

British Airways was in trouble before the pandemic, with a costly pilots strike in 2019 and other issues. There was never a good time for COVID to shut down travel, but for BA, it couldn’t have come at a worse time.

In the third quarter of 2020, British Airways lost over $1.5 billion. IAG, the company that owns them, lost over $5 billion in the first six months of this year.

So it should come as no surprise that British Airways is now canceling flights.

Last week British Airways announced it was canceling services to over 15 of its long-haul destinations next year, including its route between London and San Jose, Costa Rica, established in 2016. Other cancelled routes include some North American, Far Eastern, and Middle Eastern cities.

The plan, according to the airline, is to cancel its San Jose route “in the summer” and pick it back up again in October 2021.

But since Costa Rica reopened to tourists in August, British Airways has not restarted the route. The last BA flight to arrive in Costa Rica was a special repatriation/rescue flight in July.

In fact, after originally stating they would restart operations in October, they pushed back to November, then December, then January. It’s still possible to buy direct flights between London and Costa Rica in February, although there doesn’t appear to be any direct flights for the return leg. This has created confusion on social media with British Airways passengers not knowing where they stand.

It’s unclear if British Airways will restart operations in the first few months of 2021 before canceling in the summer or not. We’ve been trying to ask them for the past few days with no reply.

The fact that the UK is banning non-essential travel again might well sound the death knell for any plans to reopen the route in early 2021 just to close it again. We’ll see.

So what does this mean for both the tourist industry itself and the traveler?

It’s fair to say the UK doesn’t provide a large percentage of Costa Rica’s foreign tourists. In 2019, Costa Rica received 78,962 British nationals. Not all of them arrived on that direct flight from London, although many of them would have.

That 78,962 figure accounts for some 2.51% of the total number of tourists who came to Costa Rica last year. Not a large percentage, but a growing one. Visitors from the UK increased by 6% from 2018. Only Germany provided more European visitors to Costa Rica than the UK in 2019.

Countries like Costa Rica are still quite niche in the UK, still quite unknown. This means that many traveling Brits rely on specialist agencies to help them book their trips.

Dan Clarke works for one of them, a Latin America specialist called RealWorld.

“We’re obviously very disappointed by British Airways cancelling their Costa Rica route and we’re expecting it to have a big impact on bookings for next year,” says Clarke.

“Over 90% of our UK-based Costa Rica customers in 2019 and 2020 used the direct British Airways flights for their holiday with us and in general we know that customers vastly prefer direct routes, even when options with good connection times are available. It’s not just the journey time, but the scope for missed connections, lost luggage, and everything else.

“Although only a handful of people will specifically refuse to fly anywhere without a direct flight, there’s no doubt it makes people who are comparing a selection of possible destinations much more likely to choose an alternative.

“It’s a real shame because Costa Rica has dealt so well with COVID and we were looking forward to that being one of the first destinations to ‘bounce back’ next year. Obviously we’ll be looking to route people in different ways, but with the added complexity of Brexit on the horizon, even that is looking more complicated than we’d like.”

It’s not only travel agencies suffering because of this canceled route.

Costa Rica is long popular as a volunteering destination, thanks to its safety and conservation programs.

Vicky McNeil is the cofounder and director of WorkingAbroad, an organization which sends volunteers across the world.

“Basically Costa Rica has been one of the few countries that’s been “open” outside of Europe. Since September, we’ve managed to arrange for many British volunteers to travel to Costa Rica to take part in our programs there,” says McNeil.

“We run four programs there – alongside local partners – doing sea turtle research, wildlife rescue internships, and mammal and crocodile/caiman monitoring. Volunteers play an important role in supporting the work of our partners in Costa Rica. And with the majority of our volunteers coming from the UK, this will have a big impact for sure.

Of course, people can still travel via Madrid, Amsterdam, or the USA but the direct route has provided a big incentive for people to go to Costa Rica. We also arrange family volunteer programs and the direct route from London for families with kids has been a big bonus. Connecting flights is not ideal when travelling as a family.”

“I expect this will have an adverse effect on the interest we receive in 2021, along with COVID and Brexit, just to add to the general disastrous situation we have had to endure as a small business!”

When an airline cancels a route, it always affects more than the airline itself.

Especially when the route is more of an “off-the-beaten-track” one, like London-San Jose.

Sure, there will still be direct flights between Europe and Costa Rica. Lufthansa and Iberia aren’t going anywhere yet (touch wood). But despite how small this route may be to British Airways itself, enough travelers and businesses have come to rely on it over the past four years.

It will be a massive shame if it goes away for good.

James Dyde is the editor of www.centralamerica.com. He lives in Escazu, Costa Rica.