Stranded Americans accuse airlines of price gouging

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Americans stranded abroad are accusing airlines of overcharging on repatriation flights, as desperate citizens shell out thousands of dollars for a one-way ticket home.

The flight costs are adding financial stress to travelers who are already attempting to leave countries that have closed their borders and imposed strict lockdowns due to the coronavirus.

Citizens are asking the State Department to waive the airfares, but the agency is beginning to shift its strategy toward putting commercial airlines in charge of remaining repatriation efforts, providing little government oversight of the cost to consumers.

Nonprofit groups working to help repatriate Americans say tickets are hundreds and in some cases thousands of dollars more expensive than early price quotes.

Deepti Singh Suri, a self-employed yoga teacher from the Chicago area, said she has signed a promissory note with the State Department to repay the U.S. government more than $1,900 for her repatriation flight back home from India. But she’s unsure if she’ll be reimbursed for the canceled roundtrip ticket she initially booked.

“I’m only one person — my total expenses are maybe around $3,000 — but there are other families who are four or five [people]. It’s going to take a big hit,” she said.

Airlines say their tickets reflect the cost of operation, with high prices often stemming from the fact that at least one leg involves flying a plane with no passengers.

State Department-chartered repatriation flights — which typically operate as a response to natural disasters or military conflict – have guidelines to ensure airfares are consistent with the cost of a full-fare economy flight.

The State Department has largely taken responsibility for repatriating American travelers — more than 60,000 from more than 100 countries since Jan. 29 – who were stranded abroad amid short-notice border closures.

All travelers are required to sign a promissory note to repay the U.S. government. Some are told the cost upfront, while others are expecting a future invoice for an unspecified amount.

More than 1,900 people have signed an online petition asking for the State Department to waive repatriation fees.

“It is expected that the repatriation cost could be upward of $2000 or more per person,” the petition description reads, adding that many citizens “can’t even afford to pay during this time of crisis and wonder how our government could even be asking so much money to cover the expenses.”

Stranded and repatriated travelers are hoping Congress will act quickly on a bipartisan bill introduced last month by Reps. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) that directs the State Department to cover the costs for repatriation flights.

But that’s unlikely as Congress postpones normal legislative sessions until next month at the earliest.

“It is my hope that this bill’s introduction moves the State Department to take steps on its own to remedy this problem,” Velázquez wrote in an email to The Hill.

The State Department is beginning to shift its operations toward having stranded Americans book flights directly with airline carriers for repatriation, putting the financial burden on the traveler upfront.

A State Department official told The Hill on Tuesday that the agency has found “commercial rescue, passenger-paid charter model” one of the most “essential” options in helping with repatriation efforts, but ticket pricing is at the discretion of the airline.

“While we remain in constant contact with our private sector partners, ultimately, private airlines set their own prices,” the person said. “The prices the carriers charge are commercial decisions that factor in the costs associated with operating non-standard flights as well as the risk each airline is assuming in arranging these flights. Travelers are free to decide themselves whether to purchase.”  

Charter flights for repatriation efforts can be a tricky calculation.

Short-haul flights from the Caribbean cost around $400 for citizens returning to the U.S., and long-haul flights from South America cost about $800.

Baseline expenses for charter flights include fuel, crew, maintenance and any taxes or fees charged by foreign governments and airport authorities. Each ticket price is then calculated by the sum total divided by the number of seats.

But airlines say those prices can increase based on third-party operators.

An official for LATAM, a Chilean-based airline, said while the company has worked with travel agencies to facilitate repatriation, it is “not responsible for the marketing, pricing or ticketing of said charter flights.”

American Airlines, which ran repatriation flights for the State Department, said it regularly capped ticket prices to keep the cost low for stranded travelers.

Valerie Edmondson Bolaños, who is founder of the nonprofit Warrior Angels Rescue and working to repatriate Americans in Peru, said she had received quotes from multiple airlines for a Lima to Miami flight with prices ranging from $590 to a little more than $700 per passenger.

In other instances, a $1,000 ticket could be halved if the return leg of the trip was filled with Peruvians flying from the U.S. to Peru.

Bolaños shared her itinerary with the State Department and offered to cover costs, but the agency went with alternative plans.

She is now working to gain permission from the Peruvian government to run repatriation flights for at least 356 people remaining in the country, especially for those who say they can’t afford a ticket.

While the State Department has helped repatriate more than 6,800 Americans from Peru, it has started directing any remaining U.S. citizens to book directly with Eastern Airlines, a small U.S.-based carrier.

The airline’s website shows a one-way ticket from Lima to Miami costing between $2,000 and $2,500.

“We recognize that the price of these flights is higher than the pre-COVID-19 market price,” the U.S. Embassy Peru wrote on its website Tuesday, and instructed travelers to apply for emergency repatriation loan assistance to help with costs. 

An official for Eastern Airlines said the lowest base fare for the Lima flight departing on Tuesday is $1,697 plus taxes, which also reflects the plane flying empty from the U.S. to Peru.

“Eastern Airlines is proud to partner with the State Department and various Embassies in South and Central America to bring home as many Americans as possible and reunite them with their families,” the person wrote in an email to The Hill.

The official added that the airline is preparing to absorb the cost if all 240 seats are not filled.

The coronavirus pandemic has put airline travel in an unprecedented situation, with airlines struggling to stay afloat — receiving a $25 billion bailout from Congress — and passengers both domestically and internationally fighting to recoup lost travel expenses.

Democratic senators on March 31 urged the CEOs of 11 major U.S. airlines to issue cash refunds for travelers over canceled flights and provide an “affordable price” for repatriation flights.

The Department of Transportation has the power to investigate unfair or deceptive practices by airline carriers. A DOT official referred an inquiry by The Hill to the State Department.

But lawmakers say they are watching how airlines treat Americans during this crisis, and they’re urging carriers to work with the State Department.

The top lawmakers on the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week called on American, Delta and United Airlines to “participate to the fullest extent possible” with the State Department in ongoing repatriation efforts.

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