As countries around the world shut down travel and closed borders to combat the spread of the coronavirus, some 13,500 Americans are seeking assistance from the State Department to get back to the U.S. The global shutdown left travelers, tourists, and expatriates scrambling to board flights home over the past two weeks after President Donald Trump announced a travel ban on flights from Europe. Since then, other countries have ratcheted up restrictions on travel, and the airline industry has essentially ground to a halt. Emirates, the world’s largest long-haul airline, is grounding all of its flights beginning March 25. That’s left Americans stranded abroad with dwindling travel options and mounting bureaucratic hurdles to leaving countries that are in the process of locking down their populations.
The State Department says it has suspended its day-to-day visa operations and redeployed workers to help get Americans home. The diplomatic arm of the U.S. government says it has already assisted more than 5,000 returning American travelers and that it is chartering flights dedicated to repatriating American citizens. Some Americans have also found their way home squeezed on military flights. Making the task even more challenging is that some countries have already ceased internal flights, leaving Americans scattered and having difficulty returning to major international travel hubs abroad. Once there, with some airports and air traffic controls effectively closed, arranging chartered flights isn’t straightforward. In some cases, evacuations are relying on smaller military airports that have remained operational.
One aspect of the repatriation effort that has caused confusion is the cost of the emergency travel and who foots the bill. Last week, dozens of stranded travelers in Morocco were flown out of the country to London, where they were provided seats on British Airways flights back to one of 10 cities in the United States designated as entry points to manage return of passengers from abroad. Passengers were made to sign a promissory note for $1,485 to reimburse the U.S. government for the passage. Travelers who were able to snag the last commercial flights out of Morocco reported fares that were significantly lower. “Repatriation flights are not free,” the U.S. Embassy in Ghana said in a notice to Americans trying to evacuate. “Your U.S. passport will be canceled pending loan repayment arrangements. You will not be permitted to renew your passport until you’ve arranged a repayment plan with the Department of State.”
Roughly 10 million American citizens live abroad, and those who are in sustainable living situations overseas have been urged to hunker down for the foreseeable future. “Consider whether you are ready to ride out an undetermined period of time where you are now, or do you want to go to the United States to wait out events,” a senior diplomatic official told the Washington Post. “If it’s the latter, do so now, and that last bit is all caps.”