What are the challenges of the crew repatriation during the COVID-19 crisis? What’s going on? What’s the mission exactly? The crisis started in March and all guests immediately went home, why are you still repatriating crew members in August, 5 months later?! What are the difficulties?
After reading the previous posts, you are perfectly aware that I am back on board a cruise ship to complete a new mission: the crew repatriation.
Let me give you a quick inside and explain why cruise ship crew members are the most difficult population to repatriate (cargo ships, tourists & citizens are just a piece of cake 😉 ).
CDC & The Ship Situation
This is the main element to take into consideration in the crew repatriation.
Just to give you some context, apart from a few cruise lines and some ships, most of the cruise ships operate in US waters. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) declared a No Sail Order in US waters after realizing that the USA was not safe and that the coronavirus was spreading without any control in the country. Meaning that the cruise ships had to debark all passengers back in March and cannot organize any cruise in US waters during the No Sail Order.
Since then, the CDC ordered the cruise lines to come up with a health and sanitation plan (basically, isolation, social distancing, face masks, closing all onboard venues and reorganizing the different works). The American organization would then check these plans and make sure they are respected. According to the solutions that are brought in the plan and the number of covid cases, the CDC would attribute a color code to each ship. You can have more info and more detail by clicking here.
These colors are very important. They allow the ships to debark, or not, the crew members in US ports. The colors permit the cruise lines to work with the airlines as well.
Basically, RED is bad. You can’t debark your crew and airlines don’t want to work with you, and you have to give a lot of money to organize charter flights.
GREEN is the trophy. You can debark your crew in US ports and book commercial flights. Repatriation is much easier.
The thing is, when they started this color code, you had no clue when your plan would be reviewed by CDC. There was no deadline and CDC simply declined phone calls and emails. So, the only thing you could do is… Wait.
Some cruise lines simply decided that they were leaving and not coming back to US waters. Not now. They understood this repatriation will take a while and it was impossible to anticipate when we will accept passengers again. Remember this picture I showed you on a previous post with all ships in Manila: Day of the Seafarer?
However, it doesn’t mean that these cruise lines are done with repatriation because this is simply a different strategy. They are still struggling as well. You’ll understand why when I will talk about the governments. However, they don’t have to deal with this color code.
Passports and Visas Restrictions
Fun things… Normal travel restrictions still apply during the COVID-19 crisis. Most governments didn’t take any time to negotiate between each other to facilitate repatriation.
So, when you finally managed to get a commercial flight, and you will see right after that this is not that simple, then you have to check that you still have a valid passport and the appropriate visa… 🙁
You probably think “well, the governments can make exceptions regarding the situations.” Nope. Not really. Only a few governments dropped a few restrictions during the pandemic. Most of them kept the same rules and added some extra ones regarding the situation, like suspending all tourist visas.
Because of the current situation, airlines have been seriously impacted as well!
Air traffic slowed down dramatically. And airlines don’t necessarily want to restart all routes immediately, depending on each country’s situation. You might be on a GREEN status, you may not find any flight available, that match the passports’ and visas’ requirements.
And you also have to take another thing into consideration when you are looking for tickets. You can think this is unfair or even disgusting, but this is basic economy. As the airlines had to face serious profit loss, some of them decided to advertise some tickets and some routes on classic booking websites, like Skyscanner or Kayak or Expedia. However, when you book it and pay for it, you realize a few days later that the flight is cancelled and that the company will give you another ticket later. Airlines feed their cash flow and try to put some money in the bank.
Hopefully, the cruise lines book the tickets for their crew members and, of course, don’t use public websites, only private travel agencies. The risk of cancellation is really low (but still exists and I experienced it several times).
Now, I am going to talk to you about a very important piece of this puzzle: the governments.
They are lost, period.
They never faced this kind of situation so the disorganization is total.
When they make a few rational decisions, the population is too stupid to use common sense and to apply the rules.
Some governments decided to completely close the country. Not like, closing the borders for any tourist and trying to repatriate the citizens, like many countries did. No… Just closing the borders for any people. Citizens cannot go back home.
And sometimes, the borders open and then are closed again a few days/weeks later, forcing us to cancel all travel plans.
Some governments also need to deal with political issues and the coronavirus didn’t help at all. Populations are angry and it creates a lot of confusion in some countries. For us, of course, we cannot send any crew member back to his/her country if it’s too dangerous. They are safe on board and it’s better to keep them in a safe place (they all agree with that!).
The best example I can give you is Venezuela. The country is shared between 2 governments that are not recognized by the same countries within the international community… So it doesn’t start well!
The country is closed. Totally closed. I then asked the embassy to help me as I have a few citizens onboard and I can’t find any solution to repatriate them, the ambassador simply replied to me that the country was closed until December and to take good care of the crew members. Wow! I am amazed by this great sense of responsibility…..
Sadly, this is also part of the equation now.
At the beginning, cruise lines didn’t care about the money and they just took any opportunity to repatriate their crew.
Now, after 5-6 months without any income, the cruise lines are in serious troubles. Many of them already started to furlough or to dismiss their employees, especially in their land-based offices.
Of course, we won’t stop to repatriate the crew. It’s just that we can wait a few days to find a cheaper commercial flight rather than booking the first one we can find.
You also need to anticipate the requirements for certain countries and airlines that want the travelers to be Covid-19 tested. So, you need to test the crew member, send the test to a lab, wait for the results and organize the travel, ON TIME! As you can’t test the crew member 2 weeks before the travel, it must be one week to 72 hours prior the departure.
I guess it’s pointless to remind you that the tests are still not great and the results can come back in 24 hours… 72 hours… Or sometimes in 7 days… Quite a nightmare to organize!
If you operate in US waters, you need to get a GREEN status in order to access commercial flights, that are much cheaper than charter flights. After a few months without any income, it is of course advised to look for cheaper options.
In addition, you need to take into consideration passports’ and visas’ restrictions, flights’ availability and airlines restrictions. The Covid-19 test’s logistics… The political situation in the country, etc.
This is definitely not an easy process, trust me!
Alright, now you know the crew difficulties. The challenges of my mission. Most important, you are aware of what sailors have been through (and it’s still an ongoing issue for many of them).
“Hey! Wait a minute!…. The title of this post mentions the “challenges”, so I guess there will be a post where you will share the success stories, right?”
Well, well, well… You are an amazing reader! That is true. Just give me some time to organize all the photos I have taken and I will be able to show you our successes 😉