By Kristen Erthum
Following the COVID-19 global outbreak, border closures trapped more than 100,000 Americans in more than 100 countries, giving them few options to return. The pre-existing Department of State toolset of U.S. government-funded evacuation flights for one or two countries at a time was not equipped to deploy en masse to meet this unprecedented need. For the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs Transportation Affairs Division (EB/TRA)—the Department’s usual conduit to the U.S. commercial airline industry—COVID-19 meant drawing up a brand new playbook, and fast.
EB/TRA worked with American regulators to research options, and they found a rarely used direct sale charter model. Overseas posts were able to convince local authorities to grant special permissions for such flights, as well as other flexible commercial flights. Department principals and Capitol Hill leaders joined EB/TRA’s calls to airline CEOs asking them to operate these “commercial rescue” flights, while facing high risks and uncertain crew quarantine requirements in each country. At first, only two airlines stepped up, and only one delivered a flight. After seeing through a successful mission, one flight became 10 and two airlines became nine. By May 4, the Department repatriated 78,645 individuals from 132 countries. Of that overall statistic, 412 commercial rescue flights accounted for 34,585 passengers, which is almost 49 percent of all flights, and about 44 percent all repatriated Americans to U.S. soil. Innovation coupled with the “One Team, One Mission” approach from Washington, D.C. to the field delivered a doubling of the Department’s capacity to repatriate American citizens.
At the same time, EB/TRA made sure critical personal protective equipment kept moving from foreign manufacturers to the United States to save lives. By working with foreign regulators and air carriers, they were able to ensure that commercial cargo air bridges remained open without unnecessary invasive testing and quarantines for the crew. Going forward, EB/TRA will continue to work with U.S. agencies, posts, and foreign counterparts to restart international commercial aviation and to restore the public’s confidence in air travel.
Kristen Erthum is a Foreign Affairs officer in the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs (EB) Office of Threat Finance Countermeasures and a volunteer in EB Transportation Affairs Division.