Special Chicago flight part of major Czech repatriation effort

Chicago, photo: Klára Stejskalová

Over 4,000 Czechs stranded around the world by the coronavirus crisis have been repatriated this month, many on special government planes. The latest such flight will leave from Chicago on Tuesday evening, taking 170 Czech citizens in difficult situations to Prague. I discussed the special flight and related issues with Zdeněk Beránek, deputy chief of mission at the Czech Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Chicago, photo: Klára Stejskalová
This special plane is leaving from Chicago on Tuesday evening. Who will be on the plane, and why has it been organised?

“The people on board will be Czech nationals that are currently located in the United States.

“We have actually quite big interest in this flight.

“The capacity of the plane is rather limited, to around 170 passengers.

“So we have to give priority to elderly persons, families with children, students that are travelling independently and people that have no means and cannot really afford to stay in the United States.”

The Embassy announced a few days ago that the plane was fully booked. How much interest in the flight was there? How many people wanted to get onto it?

“As I said, the capacity is around 170 passengers and we registered around 250 people that were interested in the flight.

“So we had to make a selection that was clear and transparent.

“All those that were interested but unfortunately will not be able to travel on board this plane were informed accordingly.

“Because, again, we had to give priority to those in urgent need of repatriation.”

How easy it for Czechs who are in the States and seeking to get home to the Czech Republic to book a commercial flight? Or is it even possible?

“Nothing is easy these days, unfortunately.

“People that are trying to fly from the US to anywhere in Europe, including the Czech Republic, are facing many difficulties.

“Flights are being cancelled. The companies are not always communicating very quickly, so people are very often left in confusion, with their flights being cancelled.

“But it’s still possible. That’s the thing – you can still travel, there are still dozens of flights every day from the US to Europe.

“As I said, it’s not easy, but it’s still possible.”

Given that everybody who wanted to get on to Tuesday’s flight couldn’t get on to it, is there a chance of a later repatriation flight from the US to the Czech Republic?

Zdeněk Beránek, photo: archive of Czech Embassy in Washington, D.C.
“It’s not very likely that we will organise another plane, or another flight, soon after this one.

“On the other hand, we will keep informing our colleagues in Prague at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the number of people that are stranded here or that indicate interest in repatriation.

“And it’s up to Prague to decide.

“But currently it’s still possible to fly by commercial flights and we will provide any possible assistance to Czech nationals here in order for them to be able to travel to the Czech Republic.”

Obviously the coronavirus is hitting the US very hard at the moment. What particular concerns are Czech citizens expressing when they call the Embassy in D.C. looking for help?

“The most common question, obviously, is about the flights.

“Another question is related to this – some Czech nationals are seeing either their visa or ESTA expire, or about to expire, so we are giving them advice on how to deal with this particular problem.

“And there are cases, fortunately only a very small number of them, of people that are having problems with their travel insurance.”

Finally, how is the coronavirus situation affecting your day-to-day work at the Czech Embassy in Washington?

“Already a couple of weeks ago we started to work in two shifts.

“We divided the Embassy team into two teams, Team A and Team B.

“I’m in Team B, which means that this week I’m working from home, I’m teleworking, and so are many of my colleagues. And Team A is working at the Embassy.

“This measure has been taken in order to prevent all the team being infected or in quarantine.

“So if Team A or Team B has, God forbid, a case of Covid-19, the other team can still work.”