CORONAVIRUS

SAA evacuation flights to take stranded foreigners home

By Peter Fabricius 3 April 2020

Despite the start of evacuation flights, hundreds of South Africans still stranded abroad do not know if they will be able to come home soon. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Kim Ludbrook)

Despite the start of the evacuation flights from SA, hundreds of South Africans still stranded aboard remain uncertain if they will be able to come home soon.

At least 19 SAA evacuation flights are set to start departing from South Africa on Friday 3 April and to continue for the next few weeks, carrying about 7,000 stranded Germans, Belgians, other Europeans and Brazilians back home.

This follows Tuesday’s easing of travel restrictions imposed a week ago to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Nine flights are scheduled to fly to Frankfurt, eight to Munich and one each to Brussels and Sao Paulo, from Johannesburg and Cape Town, according to SAA.

The Canadian government is also believed to be negotiating with SAA for a charter flight to repatriate its stranded nationals. And several other evacuation flights of foreigners from SA are planned. 

Meanwhile, on Thursday 3 April, the second evacuation flight bringing stranded South Africans home landed at OR Tambo International Airport from Doha, carrying eight people. They went straight into at least 14 days of quarantine, as had another eight South Africans, four couples who flew in on Wednesday on an Emirates Airways flight from Dubai. They had been stranded at the airport for eight nights after flying in from a holiday in the Maldives, just before both Dubai and OR Tambo airports were closed.

Both incoming flights also brought in cargo. Despite the start of evacuation flights, hundreds of South Africans still stranded abroad do not know if they will be able to come home soon.

The German and Brazilian ambassadors who arranged the SAA charters had said they would be prepared for the aircraft to bring back stranded South Africans. But it was not clear on Thursday night if this was being arranged. 

Darren Bergman, the DA MP who has been co-ordinating and representing most of the South Africans abroad, through the Home Away from Home initiative, welcomed the second incoming flight from Doha.

“They are 16 out of 1,481 so far. However, it was 16 times more than any bookmaker would have given us after the lockdown began. So we will take it and we will keep on keeping on.”

The US embassy is also planning charter flights, according to the US ambassador to South Africa, Lana Marks. She told Daily Maverick that as of 31 March, the US Department of State has repatriated, or helped to repatriate, more than 30,000 U.S. citizens from 60 countries.

“Here in South Africa, as the lockdown has suspended commercial flight options, the US Embassy is exploring all possible means to help Americans get home, including charter repatriation flights.

“Our consular teams in Johannesburg, Durban, and Cape Town are working tirelessly to communicate with hundreds of US citizens seeking to return to the United States and to inform them of all options, including the planned charter flights.

“These repatriation flights will not be available long-term. If a US citizen wishes to return to the United States, it is important to take advantage of these flights now, or for them to be prepared to remain where they are for an indefinite period.

“We strongly encourage all US citizens in South Africa to register with STEP.State.gov and monitor the US Embassy’s website (za.usembassy.gov) and Twitter account (@USEmbassySA) to ensure they receive the most up-to-date information.”

The European Union embassy in Pretoria confirmed that after “complex” negotiations led by the German embassy, the evacuation charters starting on Friday would carry not only German nationals but also those of other EU member states. The negotiations had also entailed the “challenging coordination of multinational passenger lists of stranded European travellers in the country”. The EU thanked the SA government for its support. 

One of the big problems faced by the foreigners being evacuated is that they have to be escorted to airports. In practice, this probably means they will have to gather at collection points to be transported by bus to the airport. Embassies and stranded foreigners have expressed concern that these gatherings could potentially increase the risk of infection. 

It seems such concerns are delaying the negotiation of other charter flights.

A press release from Les Matuson and Siviwe Dongwana and Joint SAA Business Rescue Practitioners (BRPs), the company that is running SAA while it is under administration, confirmed that representatives of several governments had engaged with them to provide safe passage of their citizens to their home countries.  

These arrangements had required the approval and support of the South African government.  

The first of these chartered flights will be for the repatriation of German citizens to their home country. They are expected to operate from Friday, 3 April from Johannesburg to Munich and Cape Town to Frankfurt.  

The BRPs have confirmed that negotiations are ongoing with other governments for the repatriation of their citizens.

It stressed that the flights would be conducted in compliance with all health and safety rules of the lockdown. They were not medical evacuation flights, so anyone who had tested positive for Covid-19 would not be allowed on board.

All passengers would be screened before boarding and any who presented “flu-like symptoms” would not be allowed on board. 

“In these difficult times, SAA is committed to collaborating with all its partners and stakeholders in the fight against Covid-19. The airline will ensure the necessary transfer of passengers and essential cargo takes place in a safe and compliant manner for all during these flights,” noted the BRPs.

 “We wish to thank all SAA employees who have… undertaken the task to prepare and serve on these flights.” DM

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