Stuck abroad? Since many borders around the world have closed and the international flight network is now a mere skeleton of what it used to be, it may be hard to find an option to get home. U.S. citizens and permanent residents who find themselves in this situation may be able to hop on a repatriation flight even if commercial flight options are non-existent.
What to Know About Repatriation Flights
These special flights organized by the U.S. Department of State — Bureau of Consular Affairs could be a last resort for travelers who were unable to catch a flight home before commercial flights were halted. All U.S. citizen travelers abroad are asked to enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) at step.state.gov for the most up-to-date information.
Try Commercial Flights First When Possible
If commercial flights are still available, U.S citizens are advised to book any remaining flights still on airline schedules in order to get home. Some countries around the world are still allowing flights for foreigners abroad to return home. Although there are several flight cancellations due to COVID-19 worldwide, there are still a few places where you can either hop on a direct flight or take a connecting flight via a third country. Flight schedules are subject to change at a moment’s notice and international traffic can be halted at any time, so it’s best to fly home as soon as possible to avoid getting stuck abroad for an indefinite time.
What is a Repatriation Flight?
Repatriation flights are special charter flights organized by governments in order to bring citizens back to their country of origin. These flights are usually only available to citizens or permanent residents of the arrival country and are generally point-to-point flights — meaning passengers are responsible for any onward transportation upon arrival.
For example, if the chartered flight lands in Houston, but you live in Boston, you will need to book a separate commercial flight from Houston to Boston. The U.K. recently operated its largest peacetime repatriation program ever when Thomas Cook abruptly ceased operations, leaving British citizens stranded around the world. The two-week operation, dubbed “Operation Matterhorn”, returned 150,000 passengers on 700 flights.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has sparked repatriation efforts across the world. It is truly something the world has never experienced before as countries are scrambling to fly its citizens home who may have been stranded due to worldwide border closures.
How Do I Book a Repatriation Flight?
For U.S. citizens and permanent residents, the first step is to enroll in STEP for the latest information from the U.S. Embassy. Since these flights are very fluid and can be scheduled last-minute, it’s a good idea to also follow @TravelGov and your local Embassy’s Twitter handles. The State Department has also created a #COVID19 FAQ.
Instructions for booking will be given by the State Department. Sometimes, you’ll contact the operating airline directly to book and other times you may be asked to simply register and go to the airport.
How Much Does a Repatriation Flight Cost?
The cost of these flights can vary greatly, but the few examples we’ve seen have been anything but cheap. Don’t be surprised If these flights are more than $1,000 per passenger — even for relatively short flights. Long-haul flights could be much more. For example, seats on a repatriation flight from San Salvador to Houston were selling for $1,197 at the end of March 2020.
Sometimes, the cost of the flight may not be known prior to boarding and passengers may have to sign a repatriation loan agreement for the cost of the flight. Once back in the U.S., passports may be put on hold until the loan is paid in full.
Why Are Repatriation Flights So Expensive?
There are many factors that could lead to these flights being astronomically more expensive than commercial flights during normal times of operation, one being that the airplane is most likely flying empty to pick up passengers. That means the operating costs need to be paid for both directions with passengers only traveling one-way. Other reasons are speculative, but with borders and airports officially closed, it could be much more expensive for governments to obtain landing rights and permission to fly in certain countries where commercial flights are currently banned.
After reading this fascinating briefing with Senior State Department Officials on COVID-19, it became clear that these flights are much more complicated than typical commercial flight operations.
Which Airlines are Flying Repatriation Flights?
Repatriation flights are operated by both commercial and charter airlines throughout the world. Airlines are flying into new territory across the planet to repatriate citizens. Repatriation efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic had Wizz Air jets in the U.S. and Canada, Austrian Airlines in Australia, and Lufthansa flew an old Boeing 747 to New Zealand.
U.S. airlines are working with the government to operate these flights around the world. United has already repatriated thousands of Americans and is continuing to coordinate flights. American and Delta have also used its planes for charter flights to bring U.S. citizens home and even smaller carriers such as Sprit Airlines and Eastern Airlines are operating flights for this cause.
Some deportation flights to Central America charted by the Department of Homeland Security that were flying migrants being deported have returned with stranded U.S citizens aboard. These flights normally fly back empty and are often operated by charter-only airlines that also operate flights for the U.S. military.
How Do I Get to the Airport if I’m in a Country Under Lockdown?
Many countries around the world are under strict lockdown due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Violators in certain countries are often subject to harsher punishments than those in the U.S. and it may be difficult to find a way to the airport. Curfews and checkpoints are in place in several countries and local taxis may be unwilling or unable to transport passengers. It’s best to check with the local U.S. Embassy and local authorities for instructions on how to get to the airport for any repatriation flights. In some cases, the U.S. Department of State is facilitating transportation from secondary cities to the airport where repatriation flights are departing.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
With the U.S. now becoming the epicenter of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, some question whether or not it’s best to just shelter in place where they are or return home. This decision is highly personal and there isn’t a definitive answer for every individual. Some things to consider are the availability and cost of lodging, any potential immigration issues with overstaying a visa, the availability of health care options should you get sick, and how comfortable you feel overall. If you have a strong support network locally, you may feel safer where you are and if you’ve only been abroad for a short time before getting stuck, you may feel like getting back home as soon as possible.