Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Julie Chung said Friday that they had brought home a total of 56,000 people from overseas, including 30,000 from Latin America and the Caribbean. The head of the department’s repatriation task force, Ian Brownlee, told reporters Monday that the overall number was more than 45,000.
Brownlee said Friday that the department was tracking roughly 20,000 travelers who may still seek assistance coming back to the US, but said that number “remains somewhat fuzzy.” Chung recounted that in her time on the ground in Peru, for example, “somebody changed their mind, right before they boarded and said, ‘Actually I do want to stay here and just wait it out here.'”
Brownlee has repeatedly urged those travelers who remain abroad to come home or prepare to wait out the pandemic-related travel restrictions from where they are.
“We will ‘finish’ our State Department chartered flights sometime soon,” Brownlee said Friday.
Both he and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have said that the specific timing would be guided by demand.
“We’re going to keep it up as long as we have resources to do it and there is a need,” Pompeo said at the White House Friday.
Brownlee has indicated that they intend to shift the repatriation work to commercial airline companies.
He told reporters Tuesday that the State Department “continues to work with countries and commercial carriers to arrange for special temporary commercial rescue flights for people who want to come home” and noted Friday that they “are working closely with the airlines, and we find they’re being cooperative with us.”
In an interview Wednesday with “The Guy Benson Show,” Pompeo acknowledged the partnership between the State Department and commercial carriers.
“A lot of these flights have been flown by commercial airlines — by American, United — who have agreed to help us and send down aircraft or found an aircraft that we could put somebody aboard,” he said.
“We urge you…to participate to the fullest extent possible”
“We urge you, as leaders of America’s airline industry, to participate to the fullest extent possible in additional repatriation efforts which the State Department is organizing,” Chairman Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, and ranking member Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, wrote.
Two sources on the Hill indicated that they felt the major US carriers could be doing more to assist on the repatriation efforts, particularly on the heels of a major bailout.
“As of right now, this does not have any impact on the bailout but we are trying to encourage them to take more of a leadership role,” a Republican aide said Wednesday.
A committee aide told CNN Wednesday that, “over time, we had a sense from what we were hearing from State that some of the smaller carriers… were really jumping at the chance to do this, were taking, you know, a requisite risk having not done this before, but that it was a little bit tougher to get some of the bigger, more established US carriers to follow suit.”
That aide said they had checked with the State Department before sending the letter and were told it would be a welcome effort.
United Airlines has operated 91 repatriation flights to date which brought back 13,500 travelers, spokesperson Jonathan Guerin said Friday. Those flights have gone to 13 cities in eight countries including Australia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Nicaragua and Peru, he said, noting that they were “working closely with US State Department and other government officials to repatriate travelers who have been stranded abroad in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis.”
Ross Feinstein, a spokesperson for American Airlines, told CNN Friday that the carrier “has flown 88 missions in total thus far, and we have been proud to assist with the efforts of the US Department of State.” Feinstein said the airline had added special service from the Caribbean and Latin America, capped fares on the repatriation flights, “and a waiver program was put in place for customers whose travel was affected.”
Delta Air Lines’ spokesperson, Lisa Hanna, told CNN Friday that they had repatriated more than 27,000 citizens and operated flights from more than 20 countries. She said they had completed four out of five repatriation flights from Mumbai and the State Department had requested they add a sixth, “which we readily agreed.”
“We continue to work with the (US government) as well as other entities to operate charters where they are logistically and operationally viable within the limits of foreign regulatory restrictions,” she said.
CNN’s Kylie Atwood contributed to this report.