U.S. government steps up efforts to help repatriate Americans stranded abroad

U.S. embassies throughout Latin American and the Caribbean have started reaching out to stranded Americans to help them get back home, and in some cases, the State Department is chartering flights or directing people to available private flights.

“We’re tracking some 13,500 U.S. citizens abroad who are seeking assistance in being repatriated,” a senior State Department official said Monday.

While the number isn’t the vast majority of Americans abroad — it’s estimated that there are 10 million U.S. citizens overseas — the number represents those who have requested some form of assistance from the State Department in getting back to the U.S. in light of the global coronavirus pandemic.

In the fight to stop the spread of Covid-19, a number of countries have closed their borders and suspended flights from the United States, and elsewhere. In some cases, the decisions came with little notice, leaving thousands of Americans, including in Latin America and the Caribbean, stranded.

Complicating matters, was the State Department’s decision to issue a global Level 4 travel warning that urged Americans not to travel internationally, and to get back if they were overseas.

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Sticking with that same message Monday, State Department officials said Americans should consider whether they are ready to ride out an undetermined period of time where they currently are, or if they prefer to come to the U.S. to wait out events here.

“If it’s the latter, do so now,” one of the officials said during a call with reporters. “We are encouraging people to...avail themselves of commercial means while they still exist. That is the case in a number of parts of the world, but that window is closing fast.’

In places where that option is no longer available, the official said the Trump administration is “working around the clock to bring U.S. citizens who are stranded overseas back home,” and is not beyond using Department of Homeland Security deportation flights to bring back Americans stranded in Central America.

“DHS... has indicated a willingness to use those planes for that purpose,” the official said.

In some countries, U.S. diplomats have facilitated access for private charters. In others, they are helping mission groups get the necessary permissions for their privately chartered aircraft to land. Also, the State Department is using a special fund authorized by Congress for unexpected emergencies to organize a number of flights on its own.

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“There are going to be more of those starting today, in fact,” the official said.

On Monday, the U.S. embassy in Guatemala tweeted: “The second State Department charter flight has now departed. We plan two more flights tomorrow, and two on Wednesday. To register for these flights please follow these instructions.”

The stepped-up effort comes on the heels of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement Friday that a repatriation task force has been established to bring home stranded Americans.

Since the coronavirus outbreak, an estimated 5,700 Americans from 17 countries have been brought back to the U.S., including more than 800 people from Wuhan, China, and more than 300 from the Diamond Princess in Japan, the State Department said Monday. The majority of them were flown on State Department chartered aircraft.

“And we’re bringing home thousands more in the coming days and weeks,” the senior official said Monday. “We’re looking at now 16 or so flights in the next five days, and we’ve got, at this point, about 1,600 passengers — over 1,600 passengers identified for those flights. There’s room for more.”

U.S. citizens abroad are encouraged to enroll in Smart Traveler Enrollment Program at step.state.gov.

Getting Americans out hasn’t come without challenges. In some cases, people are in remote locations, and flights aren’t yet available. In others, like the case of Peru, the authorization from the local authorities has been slow to come by.

“It’s complicated. I mean, again, going back to the case of Peru, we are tracking a number of people who are in Iquitos,” the official said. “The only way in and out of Iquitos is by air. We are working with the Peruvians to try to get permission — and the Peruvians have shut down internal air travel. We’re trying to get permission to move those people by air to Lima so we can bring them out.

“I’ve heard about individual people in remote areas in Peru, in Samoa, in Banda Aceh in Indonesia,” he added. “So I am hesitant to give a guarantee we can move every single person. We are moving very large numbers of people and we will continue this effort.”

In Ecuador, where hundreds are stranded in the Galapagos Islands, there still doesn’t appear to be any relief. But for those in Guayaquil, the U.S. embassy recently wrote on its website: “The U.S. Embassy is aware of the following potential flight options for U.S. citizens who wish to return to the United States.”

Travelers were then provided the contact for private charter flights from Guayaquil to Miami, TAME flights departing Quito to Fort Lauderdale, and United Airlines flights departing Quito to Houston.

In Haiti, where confusion reigned after the government abruptly shuttered the two international airports Thursday, the U.S. embassy finally tweeted out some hope after spending days telling stranded Americans to contact the airline.

After the announcement, American Airlines decided to operate two flights on Monday and two on Tuesday out of Port-au-Prince only, with no further plans to operate until the government’s travel ban is lifted. JetBlue Airways also began taking reservations on Tuesday for repatriation flights on Wednesday and Thursday out of Haiti.

“These flights are operating under special authorization from the Haitian government that American requested so that U.S. citizens and permanent residents can return to the U.S.,” said American spokeswoman Martha Pantin, adding that cancellations for flights beyond Tuesday are going in the system and customers will be notified. “These flights are operating without any passengers from MIA to PAP. There are no flights scheduled after tomorrow.”

Steve Harfst, president and CEO of Eastern Airlines, said his broad-body airplanes, which already flew into Guyana to repatriate Americans, are currently flying into Port-au-Prince; Guatemala City, Guatemala, and Guayaquil, Ecuador. Eastern, he said, will also operate relief flights from Suriname and Argentina, and is awaiting approval from El Salvador.

In all the instances, the planes are flying in empty and flying out with Americans and permanent residents.

“All of these flights are being coordinated with the State Department, and the embassies in the local areas, as well as the foreign governments that are giving us the permits to make these flights,” Harfst said.

The flights, however, aren’t cheap. A one-way ticket from Port-au-Prince to Miami cost $1,297.

“This isn’t a normal scheduled flight that happens every single day,” Harfst said. “This isn’t the low cost carrier with two flights a day, that gives you a $99 fare during normal times. This is COVID-19 repatriation flights to get American citizens home to the U.S.”

Harfst said the number of flights scheduled is dictated by how many Americans an embassy believes they need to move. And in Argentina, the U.S. embassy is doing just that, alerting U.S. citizens seeking to return to the United States that the embassy is compiling a list of people seeking to leave Argentina in case commercial transportation options cease to be available.

“Where there is a need and there is capacity, we’re going to do what we can to get people home,” Harfst said. “The intent of these flights is to give an opportunity to Americans to come home to their families and their loved ones.”

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