Since ever I made a critical life decision to leave Kenya, I have been waiting for an opportunity to leave Kenya for a long time when the airport has been closed due to COVID-19, just like many other countries (in fact it was just 1-2 month, but it psychologically it felt like much longer).
Some governments/embassies made efforts to arrange a chartered flight to send their citizens back home, but the announcement comes with very short notice (e.g. 3 days – 1 week, which is hard for someone like me without a willingness to come back).
Although I have taken the UN humanitarian flight for my work, I have never taken a one-shot emergency flight before. Given that not many people have a chance to take a chartered flight, I would like to share some learning from taking emergency chartered flight in the context of COVID-19.
What is a chartered flight and who organizes how?
A charter flight is operated by an airline on behalf of some third party, and this time, the Korean embassy in Kenya arranged it. It looks like the embassy, not the airline, was entirely responsible for setting prices, filling the plane, and everything else except the pure operation of the flight.
The process goes as follows:
After having an agreement with flight operation with Qatar Air, the Korean embassy reached out to their citizens in the country, followed by offering sheets to other embassies in priority order. And thankfully, based on the Qatar Air operater on the phoen, Japan was one of the priority countries despite the long history of the controversial dispute between both countries.
The announcement came through my embassy (Japanese) a week before the flight date, and corresponding embassies took care fo flight requests from citizens, then got back to the Korean embassy.
Below are the timeline of the hectic week.
- June 10th (Wed): announcement received for Nairobi-Doha (Qatar) flight and Nairobi-Doha-Narita (Tokyo) flight options. The decision had to be made quickly.
- June 12th (Fri): request due (I already sent out a request on Thursday as I thought it would be first come first serve basis) At the same time, departure preparation (selling things, wrapping up staff and work, cooking as many ingredients as possible, etc.)
- June 13rd (Sat): My embassy announced that the flight will be operated (at this moment, still flight ticket was not booked so nothing was guaranteed, but I informed my landlord to whom I had mentioned potential leave)
- June 15th (Mon): My embassy sent me a link to reserve flight with the note of “first come first serve”, so I dropped everything I was doing and booked flight tickets. Although e-ticket was issued, sheet confirmation was not finalized, so tiny concern remained. The price was 1750 USD per person to Narita, Japan (via Doha).
- June 17th (Wed): Still the sheet not being confirmed, I kept calling Qatar air whose operator told me to discuss sheet arrangement in the reception, and I had to come 4 hours before departure.
“Traveling to gather my family is the most needed thing I wanted to do in this difficult time, so I really appreciate the generosity of the Embassy of Korea for organizing this” (comment of a non-Korean passenger for the interview with the embassy of Korea)
- June 18th (Thu): Our departure date. After saying goodbye to our loved home and dog, heading the airport.
When we arrived 4 hours before, there was already a big line in front of the airport door, and we waited for 1-2 hours outside.
Once I went inside, I saw many Asian people with the uniform with “the embassy of South Korea” interviewing/shooting some passengers’ comments, and one interviewee cueing behind me said something moving “Traveling to gather my family is the most needed thing I wanted to do in this difficult time, so I really appreciate the generosity of the Embassy of Korea for organizing this”. After checking-in, finally we could get on the plane, which was really full. The flight attendants looked very different from normal time.
For the food/drink service, I felt like being in a hospital.
- June 19th (Fri): unlike Nairobi-Doha full flight, Doha-Narita flight was really empty (see the photo below)
And the business class sheets were also empty!
After a total of 20 hours of flight from Nairobi, we arrived safely in Japan. Unlike official strict announcement, the procedure of entrance was quite loose to me (we just sat with distance, and health worker called one by one to consult where the origin and transit). Since Kenya was not one of the prohibited countries and transit (Qatar) does not count, they let us go quite quickly (10 min).
- June 20 (Sat): As we were not supposed to use public transportation including domestic flight, and the only available flight was to Narita, I had to ask my parent to drive all the way from Osaka to Narita airport (9 hours of drive). As I did not want to bother my father too much, I offered to drive. 9 hours of the drive after 20 hours flight was quite tough, but finally we made it to Hyogo (my grandma’s old house).
Throughout my trip, I kept reminding myself the popular phrase school teachers used to say during a school excursion
“Until the very moment you returns home, the excursion continues”
It was quite an excursion, and without help from many people (e.g. Korean embassy, Japanese embassy, Qatar air, Father, etc.), I could not have made it home, so I would like to return this favor in some way.
The learning of this time
The experience of taking a charter flight in the context of COVID-19 taught me the importance of helping each other during a difficult time, and I have to return favors I received from many people involved in this long excursion.
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