Stranded Americans accuse airlines of abusing prices
Americans stranded abroad accuse airlines of overcharging repatriation flights, as desperate citizens shell out thousands of dollars for a one-way ticket home.
Flight fees add financial stress to travelers already trying to leave countries that have closed their borders and imposed strict lockdowns due to the coronavirus.
Citizens ask the State Department to forgo airfares, but the agency begins to reorient its strategy to put commercial airlines with responsibility for remaining repatriation efforts, offering little government control over costs to consumers.
Nonprofit groups working to help repatriate Americans say tickets cost hundreds and in some cases thousands of dollars more than initial quotes.
Deepti Singh Suri, a freelance Chicago-area yoga teacher, said she signed a promissory note with the State Department to reimburse the US government over $ 1,900 for her repatriation flight from India . But she doesn’t know if she’ll be refunded for the canceled round-trip ticket she originally booked.
“I’m just one person – my total expenses might be around $ 3,000 – but there are other families who are four or five years old. [people]. It’s going to take a big hit, ”she said.
Airlines say their tickets reflect the cost of the operation, with high prices often due to the fact that at least one step is to fly a plane without passengers.
State Department-chartered repatriation flights – which typically operate in response to natural disasters or military conflict – have guidelines to ensure that airfares match the cost of a full-fare economy flight.
The State Department has largely taken responsibility for the repatriation of American travelers – more than 60,000 from more than 100 countries since Jan. 29 – who have been stranded abroad due to short-notice border closures.
All travelers are required to sign a promissory note to reimburse the US government. Some are informed of the cost in advance, while others expect a future bill for an unspecified amount.
More than 1,900 people have signed an online petition asking the State Department to waive repatriation costs.
“The cost of repatriation is expected to be more than or equal to $ 2,000 per person,” the petition description reads, adding that many citizens “cannot even afford to pay in this period. crisis and wonder how our government could even ask for so much money to cover expenses.
Stranded and repatriated travelers hope Congress will act quickly on a bipartisan bill introduced by officials last month. Chris smithChristopher (Chris) Henry Smith The Hill’s Morning Report – Featured by Facebook – Senate route uncertain after Jan. 6 panel approval The Hill’s Morning Report – Featured by Facebook – Biden delivers 100 million shots in 58 days, doses to neighbors The eight Republicans who voted to tighten gun background checks READ MORE (RN.J.) and Nydia Velázquez (DN.Y.) who instructs the State Department to cover the costs of repatriation flights.
But that’s unlikely because Congress is postponing normal legislative sessions until next month at the earliest.
“I hope that the introduction of this bill will prompt the State Department to take action on its own to address this problem,” Velázquez wrote in an email to The Hill.
The State Department is beginning to reorient its operations towards having stranded Americans booking flights directly with airlines for repatriation, putting the financial burden on the traveler up front.
A State Department official told The Hill on Tuesday that the agency found the “commercial rescue, the passenger-paid charter model” to be one of the most “essential” options to aid the efforts. repatriation, but ticket pricing is at the discretion of the airline.
“Although we remain in constant contact with our private sector partners, private airlines ultimately set their own prices,” the person said. “The prices charged by carriers are business decisions that take into account the costs associated with operating non-standard flights as well as the risk that each airline assumes in arranging these flights. Travelers are free to decide for themselves whether to buy or not. ”
Charter flights for repatriation efforts can be a tricky math.
Short-haul flights from the Caribbean cost around $ 400 for returning US citizens, and long-haul flights from South America cost around $ 800.
Basic expenses for charter flights include fuel, crew, maintenance, and any taxes or fees charged by foreign governments and airport authorities. The price of each ticket is then calculated by the total sum divided by the number of seats.
But airlines say those prices may rise depending on third-party operators.
An official from LATAM, an airline based in Chile, said that while the company was working with travel agencies to facilitate repatriation, it was “not responsible for the marketing, prices or ticketing of said charter flights.” .
American Airlines, which organized repatriation flights for the State Department, said it regularly caps the price of tickets to keep the cost low for stranded travelers.
Valerie Edmondson Bolaños, who is the founder of the nonprofit Warrior Angels Rescue and which works to repatriate Americans to Peru, said she had received quotes from several airlines for a Lima-Miami flight with prices ranging from $ 590 to just over $ 700 per passenger.
In other cases, a $ 1,000 ticket could be cut in half if the return leg of the trip was filled with Peruvians traveling from the United States to Peru.
Bolaños shared his itinerary with the State Department and offered to cover the costs, but the agency opted for alternative plans.
She is currently working to get permission from the Peruvian government to organize repatriation flights for at least 356 people remaining in the country, especially for those who say they cannot afford a ticket.
As the State Department helped repatriate more than 6,800 Americans from Peru, it began asking all remaining US citizens to book directly with Eastern Airlines, a small US-based carrier.
The airline’s website shows a one-way ticket from Lima to Miami costing between $ 2,000 and $ 2,500.
“We recognize that the price of these flights is higher than the pre-COVID-19 market price,” the United States Embassy in Peru wrote on its website on Tuesday, and urged travelers to seek assistance. emergency repatriation to cover costs.
An Eastern Airlines official said the lowest base fare for the Lima flight departing Tuesday is $ 1,697 plus tax, which also reflects the plane flying empty from the United States to Peru.
“Eastern Airlines is proud to partner with the State Department and various embassies in South and Central America to bring home as many Americans as possible and reunite them with their families,” the person wrote. in an email to The Hill.
The official added that the airline is preparing to absorb the costs if the 240 seats are not occupied.
The coronavirus pandemic has put air travel in an unprecedented situation, with airlines struggling to stay afloat – receiving a $ 25 billion bailout from Congress – and passengers battling both nationally and internationally to recover lost travel expenses.
On March 31, Democratic senators urged CEOs of 11 major U.S. airlines to issue cash refunds for travelers due to canceled flights and to provide an “affordable price” for repatriation flights.
The Department of Transport has the power to investigate unfair or deceptive practices by air carriers. A DOT official referred an investigation of The Hill to the State Department.
But lawmakers say they’re monitoring how airlines treat Americans during this crisis, and they’re urging carriers to work with the State Department.
Leading lawmakers on the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week called on American, Delta and United Airlines to “participate to the extent possible” with the State Department in ongoing repatriation efforts.