Austrian Airlines Repatriation Flights

What does a typical repatriation flight look like? Which steps are taken and what are the challenges? Our pilot Reinhard reveals more here.

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The repatriation flights in cooperation with the Austrian Foreign Ministry

COVID-19: One single virus manages to bring the whole world to a standstill within a very short time - and with it, the aviation industry. On March 18, 2020, the regular flight schedule of Austrian Airlines was suspended for the time being. But at this time, many Austrians were still abroad. Without further ado, the Austrian Foreign Ministry launched the initiative of "repatriation flights" to bring stranded Austrians back home as quickly as possible. Austrian Airlines is in constant contact with the Austrian Foreign Ministry to clarify and implement the organisation of repatriation flights. From Lima to Sydney, from Mexico to Indonesia - within a very short time, several thousands of Austrians have already been brought back home. Our personal heroes: The crew and team involved in the repatriation flights. An interview with pilot Dr. Reinhard Lernbeiss now provides us with more information about the planning, procedures and challenges.

First things first: How are you?
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Dr. Reinhard Lernbeiss:

Me and my family are doing well. Nevertheless, the virus is present and is getting closer. It is a queasy feeling when you hear from acquaintances that they have been infected.

At the moment we are also a little worried about my father-in-law. He is currently in Mumbai and is supposed to get evacuated via Prague. So I do not just see the situation as someone who acts, but also as someone who hopes and trusts.

How did you find out about the Austrian repatriation flights and how can you participate as an Austrian pilot?

Dr. Reinhard Lernbeiss:

The principle of voluntariness applies here first. The return flights do not just expose you to an increased risk of infection, they also require a high level of commitment. There is no routine. At any border of the airspace it can now happen that the entry permit is no longer valid. This can lead to negotiations and necessary coordination, which requires the highest level of diplomatic assistance. On top of this, of course, the organisation with local authorities and the respective health requirements have to be taken into account. Thus, everything takes much longer and decisions are currently far more complex than before. Each pilot has to decide individually, in view of his personal environment and his own family, whether he or she wants to volunteer for our repatriation operations.

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Another important aspect is our licensing framework. Even though the EASA (=European Union Aviation Safety Agency) and national authorities advocate very good possibilities for mitigation (temporary exceptions and solutions to bridge and cope with the usual valid and restrictive limits and regulations for pilots and crews), pilots in particular have to remain "current". This means that they have to take off and land at least one aircraft on a regular basis in order to maintain their entitlement. This represents a considerable challenge for an airline, because this is precisely what is required for the airline's ability to act and is immensely important for the so-called "ramp-up", i.e. the ramping up of operations at the end of the crisis. For this reason, the "Recency", i.e. the validity of the authorization, is also selected from the group of volunteers. Another important aspect is the validity of the entry visa. In many countries there are considerable restrictions and limitations, especially for people who have already had contact with COVID-19 patients.

Which repatriation flights have you already conducted? Is the route network different to the regular one?

Dr. Reinhard Lernbeiss:

At the moment, most of us have completed about two or three of these flights. The program is currently becoming a little denser, as cargo flights are now being added. Just last week, for example, medical supplies were flown in from China, which were necessary for hospitals in Tyrol and South Tyrol. Most of the destinations are not part of the regular Austrian route network. Currently, for example, I am waiting for the departure from Bali to Vienna with a stopover in Kuala Lumpur. But there have also been flights to Lima, Mexico City or Sydney - in all cases, the cabin was completely occupied.

How does it feel to be told that you can operate a repatriation flight?

Dr. Reinhard Lernbeiss:

A sober attitude is essential. Based on facts. You have to put emotions aside and keep cool. Anyhow, I would say that Austrians can be really proud of their country. It is implemented much better than in many other countries. However, we also have to be aware of this after the crisis. In any case, the people on our flights are incredibly grateful and proud to be Austrians.

Were you even able to get prepared for the flights? If so, did you have any special briefings?

Dr. Reinhard Lernbeiss:

Most of the flights are certainly no typical routine flights. We have a few important guidelines, but of course they cannot cover all eventualities. For example, at this very moment, I received a call that we have to remove the aircraft at the airport in Bali. The airport manager is not even allowed to do this with the help of our technicians by himself. I wasn't supposed to be at the airport within the next five hours, but now I have to leave earlier. Those are things you cannot prepare - and this is quite harmless.

How do the repatriation flights differ from the "normal" flights?
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Dr. Reinhard Lernbeiss:

As many might suspect, we do not have doctors on board. From an epidemiological point of view, it would be unwise. But there are representatives of the Foreign Ministry, who are currently doing an incredible job with the local authorities. This can be particularly challenging, as the number of passengers and, above all, the amount of freight fluctuates considerably. One thing is immensely important for us even in times of crisis: the correct loading of the aircraft. This is essential for reasons of flight safety. An experienced technician checks the aircraft, takes care of the refuelling and is absolutely indispensable at the airports, where we do not have any contractual partners in the usual way.

However, the current situation is also very difficult for the cabin crew. They are used to not just accompany passengers with a lot of charm and their famous smile, but also to inspire them. In times of COVID-19, however, the new etiquette is called "distance" and the smile behind the mask is not visible. For our flight attendants, who live the "Charming Way to Fly" even off duty, this is a great challenge. But they still master it with a lot of charm and tact.

How does the boarding of the passengers proceed?

Dr. Reinhard Lernbeiss:

Thanks to the support of the Austrian Foreign Ministry, which is doing incredible work in advance of each and every flight, things are progressing a little slower than usual, but nevertheless always in a controlled and orderly manner. There are always fever measurements and medical check-ups. But with every flight we keep learning and can improve and optimise our procedures.

How does a typical repatriation flight look like?

Dr. Reinhard Lernbeiss:

Usually you get informed at short notice before the actual flight. No more than one or two days before. The flight briefing then takes place in our headquarters building, which is currently occupied by hardly anyone except the crew. A cabin crew team leader is available for all kinds of questions, but most of the information is sent electronically in advance. Due to the short-term nature and flexibility, it can happen that one or another approval has to be submitted later.

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It is also possible that we have to go through a questionnaire with the medical service via satellite phone during the flight, which local authorities have issued only a few minutes before and which are suddenly necessary for the respective entry. The briefing before the flight is intensive and we try to cover numerous eventualities as a team. The outbound flight is completely empty, except for the crew and team. On site, our catering is handed out on the ground even before boarding, in order to comply with the hygiene regulations. Our flight attendants have to keep their distance for the entire flight and wear protective masks.

What happens after the repatriation flights? Any specific measures?

Dr. Reinhard Lernbeiss:

In terms of crew and passengers, our options here are somewhat limited. Therefore, no special measures can be taken, but tracking does exist. So if a passenger or crew member is tested positive for COVID-19 or shows symptoms, everyone will be informed and asked to follow certain procedures, depending on the type of contact. Aircraft cleaning, which was also carried out thoroughly before the crisis, is now being conducted even more intensively and manually. The entire aircraft gets disinfected and checked several times.

Thank you, Reinhard, for taking the time to answer our questions. At the same time we would like to thank you, all involved parties and our crew for your tireless efforts and the seamless implementation. A further thank you to the Austrian Foreign Ministry, for the trust and excellent cooperation.

Find out more about the repatriation flights

Still abroad? Austrian travellers are strongly advised to return home as soon as possible. So if you are still abroad, you should take the following steps:

  1. Register free of charge at the Austrian Foreign Ministry. This is the only way for the authorities and embassies to find out in which country you are currently staying. The corresponding embassy or representation will contact you as soon as possible.
  2. Register on heimflug.austrian.com to sign up for one of the repatriation flights. The offer will constantly being expanded and is determined by your registration at the Austrian Foreign Ministry.
  3. Please follow the social media channels and news of the Austrian Foreign Ministry to stay up to date: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram.

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