The State Department’s process for charging Americans for repatriation flights at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic lacked consistency, leading to inaccurate pricing and delayed billing, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
The report, which was published on Tuesday, looked at the State Department’s efforts, under the former Trump administration, to repatriate more than 100,000 Americans who were stranded abroad during the chaotic first weeks of the pandemic outbreak in March 2020.
While the GAO praised State for carrying out “a historic effort”, it made six recommendations of the agency to improve preparedness and highlighted shortcomings during the months-long operation. State, under the Biden administration, agreed with all six of the recommendations.
In particular, the GAO pointed to State’s process for determining flight prices.
The State Department is required by federal law to charge individuals for repatriation costs, with travelers typically signing a “promissory note” agreeing to pay the cost of the flight at a later time.
The State Department did not require promissory notes or charge for flights when carrying out its mass evacuation of more than 120,000 people from Afghanistan in August.
State guidelines say that the price is not to “exceed the cost of a reasonable commercial airfare immediately before the crisis.”
The oversight group analyzed State’s process for determining flight prices as well as administering an online survey of 189 people who were passengers on repatriation flights between January 29 and June 5, 2020.
The survey consisted of closed- and open-ended questions, where respondents largely praised the State Department for their operation, communication of information and personal interactions. In particular, respondents said diplomats were helpful, warm and reassuring.
But respondents were critical of the flight costs and the billing process.
In one example, GAO highlighted a repatriated American couple who paid over $6,000 for a one-way, State-sponsored flight from Chennai, India, to San Francisco, California, telling the oversight office, “It was way too high for any standards and even during a pandemic.”
The GAO found that State “lacked procedures for documenting and calculating the prices. As a result, documentation of costs charged to passengers was inconsistent and processing of passenger billing was delayed.”
According to the report, the State Department distributed nearly 27,000 promissory notes at the height of the repatriation flights – amounting to an estimated $45.4 million.
The majority of people paid the State Department back. Only 29 percent have yet to pay their bills, which adds up to an estimated $13.2 million.
GAO said that when the analysis was brought to State, they updated their guidance and procedures on evaluating costs for repatriation flights, including capturing screenshots of market fares based on specific air carrier, flight number and class of service.
The GAO report found that during the pandemic repatriation efforts, documentation for 60 fares (about 26 percent) did not include records of adult, child and infant fares — State updated its guidance to account for age when calculating fares.
The report also found that State did not include procedures for determining the actual number of passengers on a flight when calculating the fare, which impacts determining the per-passenger cost of a State-funded charter flight.
The inconsistencies on carrying out the flight cost calculation led to delays in bills being sent to repatriated individuals, the report found, and was noted as a concern among passengers.
The findings by the GAO echo concerns raised during the height of the repatriation process by stranded Americans, advocates and NGOS, who said flight prices offered by the State Department appeared hundreds, if not thousands of dollars over the regular commercial pricing.
According to the most recent guidance from the State Department, Americans who accept repatriation assistance from the State Department and sign promissory notes are typically required to repay the amount within a period of 30 days. After that they can incur additional interest and administrative charges and risk having their passport suspended.
In March 2020, lawmakers proposed legislation that would waive fees charged to Americans requiring repatriation during the pandemic.