It is said that out of every crisis an opportunity emerges, and the story of the small Piketberg agency that has risen to prominence during lockdown is a prime example of this. Travel News journalist Sarah Robertson tracked down owner of West Coast-based All About Travel, Elzanne Richter, to find out more about the ins and outs of organising repatriation flights.
“Every year thousands of South African farmers, including my husband, fly to the United States at the beginning of the agricultural season for seasonal work, but this year the timing of the lockdown meant that these breadwinners were unable to return to their jobs. It was because of stories like this that the Locked in South Africa (#LISA) group was formed to fight for people’s rights to leave the country,” explains Elzanne.
Elzanne first got involved with #LISA when government regulations were relaxed, allowing repatriation to take place. As her husband was desperate to get to the States, she contacted the group co-ordinators for help, knowing that thousands of jobs were on the line and then she got involved in organising one of the first repatriation flights together with the #LISA coordinators.
“The initial flight that I assisted with was an SAA charter that flew direct Johannesburg to Washington. We had three days to book and organise before it flew out chock-a-block with 320 passengers (farmers, US citizens and green card holders) in early June. We worked through the night to pull it off. Later, when clients approached us for assistance to reach other parts of the world, I spoke to Turkish Airlines who gave us a very good fare and allowed us to organise two charter flights during June and July. The incredible Turkish Airlines team assisted in making these flights a great success,” says Elzanne.
After this, both SAA and Turkish Airlines started to organise their own repatriation flights. Elzanne says she was happy to step back as it meant that she was relieved of the risky process of signing off R8m-R10m charter flight manifests before client deposits had been secured. She was also happy to see other agents getting involved, as she knew how difficult the past few months had been for the industry.
“These are desperate times for our industry and sadly, stories soon started to emerge on the #LISA groups of agents charging clients ridiculous amounts – R3 000-R4 000 on top of the commission they were earning – to book flights and also to fill out simple online ‘expression of interest’ forms. This resulted in #LISA co-ordinators removing many agents from their groups in an effort to protect their members. I can’t comment on their behalf, and I certainly do not believe that all agents were taking advantage of clients – I am an agent myself and I charge service fees for the bookings I do – but the reality is that there have been incidents where people, who were stranded in remote parts of the world and were desperate to get home, were taken advantage of, at the worst possible time,” she adds.
As a result of demand for travel from South Africa to Australia and New Zealand, a new partnership was then forged between #LISA, All About Travel, Guardian Assist and SAA. The team began to plan a flight to Australia with the intention of booking commercial onward connections to New Zealand weeks ahead of the intended departure date.
“Unfortunately during the planning process, the COVID cases in Australia and New Zealand spiked, resulting in passenger arrival caps being implemented in Australia. This limitation severely impacted the passenger numbers on the charter, which would render it unaffordable, as the cost per passenger for the charter would have been astronomical. Various options were studied by the role-players but, in the end, it was deemed impractical to plan for a charter to Australia. After much blood, sweat and tears, and working tirelessly, sometimes throughout the night, a solution presented itself – a flight into Christchurch. The plan was for the Australian passengers to connect via another smaller charter to Australia. SAA was pivotal in arranging clearances between the South African, Australian and New Zealand governments. As September 7 grew closer, arrangements were falling into place and the passengers’ excitement was almost tangible, as many commenced their journeys up to Johannesburg in anticipation of returning home. At this point, we had two days to get approvals and documentation in place for the small Australian-bound group of passengers. Our team, in conjunction with the airline and border authorities, tried everything in our power to find a workable charter solution for them. Unfortunately, at the last minute, these clients were turned away as there had not been enough time to apply for their visas,” explains Elzanne.
“There has been a lot of negativity in the agent community about this Australia flight (via Christchurch) but I can truly say that we tried our best and left no stone unturned in our efforts to help these passengers. Most of the clients who were unable to fly have already been refunded in full for the flight except for a small group of people who have asked us to keep trying to find them a way to get back. The SAA flight, filled with jovial New Zealanders, touched down safely on Christchurch soil on September 8 however, achieving the seemingly impossible for those passengers,” she adds.
Asked how a small agency had done so much during lockdown, Elzanne says you have to put your hand up for opportunities. She says the successes have been as a result of a team effort that could not have been achieved had it not been for the endless hours of work done by the #LISA volunteers, both the SAA and Turkish Airlines staff, and the dedicated All About Travel and Guardian Assist teams.
“It has been difficult to know that we have been busy during this period while so many of my friends in the industry have been suffering. I understand their pain as I spent the first two months of lockdown in despair about how my business of 16 years had collapsed. I didn’t get involved in repatriation flights for the money though, I got involved because I was emotionally invested in the plight of the farm workers. In fact we lost money on the Australia flight and although #LISA group members offered donations to make up for the shortfall, we would not accept these funds. I have kept going through this period because I have wanted to try and reunite clients with their dying family members or to help them make it home for the birth of their first child,” says Elzanne.
“I know the industry is feeling a lot of anger right now and I believe that some agents are angry with the #LISA co-ordinators, but I have seen these people work day and night for months on end for no remuneration to help people get home. Sometimes things don’t run smoothly, despite everyone’s best efforts. If I never see a form of expression of interest for a repatriation charter flight again it will be too soon. I pray daily that the borders will reopen and that our industry, my business and my friends can go back to work as normal.”