How much does a seat on a repatriation flight cost?

Apr 18, 2020

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I was in South Africa this March when the country declared a State of National Disaster due to the coronavirus pandemic. That night, my husband JT booked us the next Delta flight that was available from Johannesburg to Atlanta using Virgin Atlantic miles. We were glad we had this flight when the U.S. Department of State issued a worldwide Level 4 “do not travel” warning four days later and advised U.S. citizens to arrange for immediate return unless they were “prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period.”

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But, some U.S. citizens abroad weren’t able to snag a seat on a commercial flight before schedules were slashed. And others had flights back to the U.S. booked, but these flights were ultimately canceled. For these U.S. citizens, the only options were to remain abroad for an indefinite period or try to snag a repatriation flight back to the U.S.

Related reading: What to do if you’re stranded abroad when crisis strikes

Since we’d signed up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) notifications, we started receiving emails from the U.S. Embassy Pretoria, South Africa soon after the Department of State announcement. These emails encouraged U.S. citizens to secure a ticket on a commercial flight but also included information to submit interest for a potential repatriation flight.

Once we were back in the U.S., two repatriation flights from South Africa to the U.S. were announced. An email I received from the U.S. Embassy Pretoria about these flights noted:

Please remember that evacuation flights are not free-of-charge and are, in fact, frequently more expensive than currently available commercial travel; you will be required to sign a promissory note guaranteeing future payment to the U.S. Government if you travel on a charter flight.

Related reading: 10 unusual ways airlines repatriated stranded citizens and delivered coronavirus medical supplies

In taking a close look at the promissory note, it states that U.S. citizens who take a repatriation flight and aren’t U.S. government employees on official assignment or eligible family members of U.S. government employees on official assignment agree that:

I will be billed for the cost of my/our transportation no greater than the amount of a full-fare economy flight, or comparable alternate transportation, to the designated destination(s) that would have been charged immediately prior to the events giving rise to the evacuation.

So, you should expect to pay the price of a standard full-fare economy ticket if you’re a U.S. citizen taking a repatriation flight. And, it’s important to realize that a full-fare economy ticket often costs more than you’d expect.

According to the U.S. Department of State, it has coordinated the repatriation of 64,178 Americans on 603 flights from 110 countries since January 29, 2020. As these repatriation flights have occurred, we’ve learned how much some of these flights have cost:

So, repatriation flights don’t come cheap.

The high cost for repatriation flights is generally due to the cost of chartering a flight to a destination not usually served by an airline, as well as the fact that the aircraft may be flying without passengers while positioning before and after the repatriation flight. Plus, repatriation flights may be operating from airports that have otherwise been shuttered.

Looking at these costs makes me thankful we were able to get out of South Africa inexpensively using points and miles. But, it’s also a good reminder to have some money set aside in an emergency fund. And, it might be a good reason to consider whether you should purchase travel insurance for future trips — and to read the inclusions and exclusions on your insurance carefully.

Related reading: The best travel insurance policies and providers

Featured photo by Eye Candy Images/Getty Images.

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