Is the US Government Price Gouging Citizens For Rescue Flights?

A lot of people around the world are trying to get home right now before borders close and more flights are canceled. Airlines are in a tough position as immigration rules seemingly change by the hour.

A few days ago, I read an article about charter flights by the US State Department to evacuate Americans stranded in Guatemala by the coronavirus pandemic.

Having lived in Guatemala for some time, the country is near and dear to my heart. However, I’m not extremely familiar with how repatriation (aka “rescue flights”) work so I genuinely interested in how these flights, had a lot of questions, and was surprised by many of the details that I found.

BACKGROUND

Flying from Guatemala City (GUA) to Miami (MIA) is a ~2.5 hour flight (or 1017 miles to be exact).

For comparison, the following routes are approximately the same distance:

  • Los Angeles (LAX) – Seattle (SEA) = 954 miles
  • Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) – Cleveland (CLE) = 1021 miles
  • New York (JFK) – Miami (MIA) = 1089 miles

And generally, you can find one-way, non-stop flights between Guatemala City and Miami for about $100. Given the current situation, I assumed flights would be a bit more expensive given an increase in demand.

ARE RESCUE FLIGHTS FREE?

I never thought much about the logistics but I assumed rescue flights were free or perhaps had minimal costs however I was surprised that that is far from the case!

The US government is charging $1595 per person for a one-way, economy flight between Guatemala City and Miami.

Surprised by the cost, I was curious if the price fluctuated by destination. For example, was $1595 a “standard price” or does it cost more if, say, the rescue flight was between China and the US or Europe and the US?

RESCUE FLIGHT BETWEEN MOROCCO AND THE US

A few days ago, I had also read numerous accounts of passengers being stranded in Morocco because, without forewarning, the the borders were closed. Through the U.S. Embassy and Consulate in Morocco website, I was able to determine:

Event: There are special U.S. charter flights leaving Marrakesh Airport today, Saturday, March 21, 2020 at 1:00 PM, 3:00 PM, and 5:00 PM.

Actions to Take:  Please proceed to the Marrakesh Airport as soon as possible if you would like to be on one of these flights today. There will be U.S. Embassy and Consulate General staff present outside of the terminal.  Please speak to these representatives to confirm seat availability and register for the flights. These will be the last charter flights before Morocco closes its airspace to commercial air traffic tomorrow. There will be no special U.S. charter flights from other cities in Morocco.

All passengers will need to reimburse the U.S. Government for the flight at a later date, and a promissory note for approximately $1485 which must be signed before boarding. No cash or credit card payments will be accepted, and no payment needs to be made today.

For specific questions, please email us at: MoroccoEvac@state.gov

Note: The bolded areas above are for my own emphasis.

GOING DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE

I found a few interesting things about this message:

  1. What is the destination of the flight? Chicago? New York City? Jackson, Mississippi? Omaha, Nebraska?
  2. Why does it cost more to travel from Guatemala than Morocco?
  3. Are there consequences for signing the “promissory note” but not repaying the government?
  4. Is there a timeline for repaying the government?

FLYING WITHOUT DETAILS?

A reader of 1TP who is currently located in Ghana reached out to me with an interesting email. She was attempting to return to the US and had contacted the US government about a repatriation flight. This was the message that she received:

FINAL STAMP

I’m not sure how I would feel if I received this message so I’m curious…

What are your thoughts about the email above? Do think repatriation flights should be free? Should they be priced according to region? If the flights are free, should tax-payers be held responsible for the bill (i.e. gas, crew fees, etc.)? Should your passport be revoked if you do not repay for the flight? Should there be “discounts” for families given $6000 or more (for a family of 4 ) is fairly expensive for a 2.5 hour flight? Is this an expense that should be expected if traveling abroad?

13 comments

  1. Wow! That’s insane! If in a third world country you could probably rent an apartment for a month for that price and ride it out, especially if you’re paying that per person for a family or 4! Terrible but good information to know.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t see this as price gouging – supply and demand drive typical pricing so it’s not an accurate comparison point for a chartered flight arranged with a commercial airline…especially since they’re not doing well you KNOW they’re demanding top dollar lol. And I also don’t think they should be free unless you were on government business. I actually make sure that my travel insurance covers emergency repatriation expenses, and if those folks had similar insurance they should get reimbursed for any costs they had to pay.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting points. Would your stance change if you knew other countries were repatriating for free? What if someone was abroad for humanitarian reasons or on a long-term mission trip, who should be responsible for those expenses? You also bring up a great point about travel insurance. I need to look into the logistics of. For example, does it cover government repatriation flights?

    Like

  4. Wow! This is interesting. I have never really thought about repatriation but I also would never have assumed that it was free or even cheap. I mean you are talking about a special U.S. government-chartered flight as opposed to a commercial flight. It is hard to say what is reasonable in a crisis. Factors like whether I am the only one on the flight and if the flight also being used to transport cargo or some other benefit for the government matter in my opinion. Now the part about getting on the flight without knowing the final price or the destination city is crazy. I guess the upside is that stranded citizens would not have to pay upfront to get home.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. @Ronda interestingly, there are several countries that are offering free repatriation flights. there are even private jet charters companies that are offering free flights. in light of this, should it be free or cheaper for one of the “wealthiest nations in the world?”

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  6. Excellent point! However, I’ve long realized that despite being amongst the wealthiest countries in the world, the US government does not tend to prioritize its citizens who are in need as compared to other countries. Considering that citizen access to adequate healthcare, shelter, or even clean water (Flint, MI) is frequently at issue, I certainly wouldn’t expect the US to be quick to extend free/discounted repatriation assistance to stranded travelers abroad.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. No my stance wouldn’t change…only because it’s the US so I would never have those expectations lol. We can’t even agree to care about the health of our country enough to have some decent umbrella health care coverage for basics…so I definitely don’t expect that the government would freely pay for repatriation costs. Other countries also have airlines where the government owns a stake, so that’s a factor as well. Now I definitely think they could negotiate directly with the airlines for a more fair price, but that may also prolong how long it takes to get a plane in the air to rescue folks. I honestly have a larger side eye for the private airlines for charging what they’re charging for those flights AT THE SAME TIME they’re demanding a government rescue of their own. And answer doesn’t change for mission or other humanitarian trips…those are still private trips. I don’t think it’s fair to say that someone’s mission trip, while honorably intentioned, means that person deserves more taxpayer help than someone on a work or vacation trip…especially since they are all taxpayers. Either everyone pays or no one pays.

    Liked by 1 person

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