On March 12, Windstar Cruises ceased embarking guests as the COVID-19 pandemic spread worldwide. By March 15, all guests had disembarked Windstar’s ships and crew stayed on board as the company worked to find places to dock or anchor our ships.
As the pandemic evolved over the next few weeks and months, it became clear the ships would be out of service longer than initially anticipated. The crew on board had been kept busy with many projects and made good use of time without guests, but now it was time to take crew home.
This proved to be a monumental challenge.
Countries closed borders, travel in and through countries became restricted, air flights are few and far between and making it even more complicated, countries have differing requirements for health screenings and approval processes. Further restrictions were enacted for ships’ crews in the U.S. that prevented them from taking any commercial flights or public transport en route home. No public planes, buses, Ubers, taxis or trains allowed. Only private modes of transportation. Similar travel restrictions and rules on quarantine varied by country.
This was a new environment for us all to navigate. It was an all-consuming project for many in the Seattle office, and the team came together to work long hours to repatriate the crew – our valued team members.
First, we reached out to other cruise lines to see if we could partner on charter flights to different countries. While it sounded smart, it didn’t work because of the problems it could cause with mixing crews from different ships and the fear of cross contamination. We knew there were no crew with COVID-19 on the Windstar ships and the air charter was unlikely to be approved.
Next, the team worked to secure charter flights out of Barbados and St. Maarten, but those fell through due to government restrictions. Back at the drawing table, the idea of consolidating homeward bound crew onto one Windstar ship and using it to help transport them home gained traction as the most viable option. Air charter bids were obtained in Lisbon and Amsterdam – two cities still allowing flights for repatriating crew. Windstar’s marine operations and safety team, and HR team did the heavy lifting on logistics around health clearances, COVID testing and the applicable government clearances needed to board crew on flights. And the plan fell into place.
On April 27, Star Pride, Wind Star and Wind Surf met up in St. Maarten to transfer crew heading home onto the Star Pride. The ship sailed for Lisbon, Portugal where it arrived on May 14. The Star Pride’s Captain, Purser, Hotel General Manager, and Doctor worked together to handle the logistics on crew health screening to gain clearance for the crew to leave the ship. Flight approvals came in on May 25, and on May 27 crew boarded a Qatar charter flight to Manila and Jakarta with stops in Athens and Doha for fuel. 250 total crew flew to their home countries – 120 Filipinos and 130 Indonesians.
Happily in their home country, but not quite yet home, arriving crew members were required to self-isolate in hotels for potentially up to 14 days to ensure they were COVID-19 free before continuing on to their homes. Windstar arranged hotels and ensured they were looked after with three meals a day. Finally, they were on their way home!
Mike Inman, George Howell, and Mary Chaussee led the Seattle team and managed the repatriation process. There were applications to file for entry and exit to countries and approvals to chase down from Ministries of Health, Homeland security, Department of Foreign Affairs, military, and civil aviation authorities. Imagine the coordination!
While coordinating the charter flights, Mike and George communicated over five time zones and a dateline. They provided updates at all hours of the night/day to ensure connections were made and people were met and transported promptly. It was a long two days. But as George said, it was even longer for the crew who were traveling during that time.
Mike says that for the Indonesian seafarers, they dealt with the Indonesian Embassy in Lisbon, our Port Agent in Portugal with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Civil Aviation Authority and Immigration, and through our Port Agents in Indonesia with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Army and Ministry of Transportation. For the Filipino seafarers, they dealt with the Counsel General office in Lisbon, the same Portuguese authorities, and through our Manning Agency in the Philippines with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Civil Aviation Authority. This list is indicative of the labyrinth they navigated.
Repatriating our crew during this pandemic was a collaboration of several departments: Marine Operations, Windstar and Xanterra management, Finance, Human Resources, the team aboard Star Pride, and Guest Services Crew Travel.
Truly a joint effort.