If you were to ask most people what their “bucket list vacation” would be, many would likely have an African safari somewhere near the top. Some dream their whole lives of riding through the brush on the back of an open-topped Jeep chasing down lions, elephants, and giraffes to see up close and personal in their natural habitat, uninhibited by mankind.
However, the recent travel bans imposed on several countries in Southern Africa by the United States and Europe due to the outbreak of the omicron covid variant have turned many of these dreams into nightmares over the last few weeks.
The US announced Friday, November 26th that it would impose restrictions on those traveling from South Africa, inciting panic and anxiety for hundreds of American travelers in the region. I happened to be one of those travelers and witnessed firsthand the impact of these restrictions on airlines and US citizens as we scrambled to get home.
I had been enjoying a ten-day trip through Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Timbavati Game Reserve which had been planned and anticipated with my girlfriend and her family for over two years. The trip had exceeded all expectations until Thursday morning when we received word that the United Kingdom was closing its borders due to the omicron variant. A few minutes later, three members of our party received alerts that their flights through London Heathrow Airport had been canceled.
Our first thought was that the cancellations were an unwelcome hassle that would easily be overcome with a rebooking. But as more news reports began to roll in, the situation took a turn for the worse.
With the news that the United States would also be instating travel restrictions, our group was forced to make a decision: continue enjoying the last few days of our safari or head to Johannesburg and try to catch an earlier flight back to the US. With memories of a full-blown lockdown still fresh in our heads from 2020, the choice seemed obvious.
We landed in Johannesburg on Saturday morning and went directly to the United and Delta airlines terminal. Upon arrival, we were disheartened to see no representatives from United present at the check-in counter. As a line of upset travelers lined up in front of the Delta counter, a representative stood and announced to the crowd, “if you have no tickets, you will not be flying today and you will not be flying tomorrow”.
Travelers left their children to hold places in line at one terminal as they ran to the next searching desperately for answers. Crowds of people fought over covid tests and shouted impatiently waiting for their results. News reports conflicted with information we were receiving from the airlines, the US embassy, and the CDC regarding travel requirements. It was mayhem.
For the next 48 hours, that terminal became the unexpected last stop on our “bucket list” vacation. The seven of us joined hundreds of other Americans waiting for their names to be called from the standby list for the 10 pm nightly direct flight to Newark/New York.
During that time, we met and swapped stories with the many travelers going through this ordeal with us. A family from Dallas taking a trip to celebrate their son, a senior heading off to college in the fall who always wanted to bungee jump and shark dive. A husband and wife working with domestic abuse victims in Botswana returning to Atlanta to see their son for the first time in six months. A newlywed couple enjoying their first big trip together since the pandemic began. We all came together and shared as much information as possible to help each other get back to home soil.
Although the message from President Biden was that the restrictions did not apply to US citizens, the reality at OR Tambo Airport was anything but. While other airlines based in European countries were prioritizing their citizens to get home, the US did the opposite: non-US citizens would be given entry before US citizens until the restrictions officially began on Monday, November 29th. Anyone who had purchased a flight connecting through Europe was left with nothing. No rescheduled flight. No warning. No backup plan. No answers.
Those that tried to book one of the few remaining tickets on either Delta or United were staring at a price tag of about $3,000 per ticket. Some families with several children were looking at spending a minimum of $10,000 to get home. There were also reports coming back to us from travelers who did manage to get on to one of these flights that there were thirty to fifty empty seats on these planes as they took off, further disheartening and infuriating the group left behind.
Thankfully, one member of the United team in Johannesburg went above and beyond to help us. After the first unsuccessful night of waiting and hoping, she called the group of about seventy passengers together and explained the situation. “The standby list for tonight will carry over for tomorrow. I will do everything I can to get you on this flight. If I can’t do it tomorrow, I will try again the next day. In the meantime, please keep an eye on our website for seats to become available. Buy them. Lock them in. If you have a flight booked in a few days, I will do my best to move you up. I will do everything I can.”
This United employee went above and beyond to empathize with us and understood the fear and uncertainty in that crowd. Her words reassured us and a palpable calm rushed over the group. We had some information. We had some clarity. At a time like that, a few kind words can go a long way.
Our group of seven was able to successfully board the United airline’ direct flight to New York on Monday, November 29th. We considered ourselves extremely lucky as we said goodbye to the majority of the other passengers we had become so close with over that weekend. They remained in that terminal for the next few days, battling the uncertainty of when they too would make the flight home.
We often see these news stories from the comfort of our homes and they barely register. They aren’t real unless they directly impact us. Our group made it out because we had each other to remain calm, stable, and make good decisions. If one person panicked, another stepped up and did what needed to be done. We had each other and that ultimately made the difference.
I will always be grateful for not only this incredible trip to South Africa but for the quick thinking of our group, the calm reassurance of one team member for United airlines, and the unexpected happiness and relief of being home safe.