Repatriation chaos: SA citizens in Washington DC frustrated as they struggle to get SAA tickets

Luka Gonzales / Getty Images

There is fear, anxiety and panic from South Africans stuck in the United States as they scramble to get on the first SAA repatriation flight they can be confirmed on. 

News24 has spoken to at least three citizens among a group of over 20, waiting to board a flight to bring them home. 

The group had been unsuccessful in getting on previous flights, which departed Washington DC on Saturday and Sunday night.  

Catherine Berlein, 23, from Nelspruit, who had travelled to the United States in January for business purposes, told News24 she had booked and paid R15 150 for the repatriation flight which left the country on Saturday.

This after she had received emails from the South African Embassy asking her to confirm her details, she said.

After receiving her flight confirmation, she then went to Dulles International Airport on Saturday, 2 May, with the hope of being on the flight. On arrival, though, she was informed her booking was cancelled and her ticket not issued, without any clear explanation as to why.   

Berlein's efforts to get on the flight were unsuccessful and she had to return to her accommodation.

"The women behind the counter were only commissioned by SAA; they were not SAA staff, so unfortunately they couldn't do much. If we weren't on the system, they couldn't issue tickets. The most they could do was check if you were on the system," she said.

Pleading for flight to stall

When she returned on Sunday at around 11:00, she was not on the list of those confirmed to board the flight.

But she said the SA embassy was also on the ground, assisting those who were in a similar situation to her. 

Berlein hailed the embassy for being available and staying with them throughout the process.

"They (embassy) told us that there would be a list arriving and we must just wait for the list. So we all waited. I think there were a group of about 40 of us who didn't have tickets, but had paid. 

"The list came and I wasn't on it. A lot of us weren't on the list and they told us to write our names down on another piece of paper, along with our passport numbers."  

Berlein said she believed the embassy sent the separate list to SAA, to inquire what was happening. 

She said this, however, was also unsuccessful as they were also not able to board the Sunday night flight. 

At some point before departure, Berlein said they pleaded with those who had boarded to stall the plane, so they could try to get themselves on the flight. 

"At about 18:40, we were messaging people we knew on the plane, asking them to please try and stall the plane. They managed to stall the plane for about 20 minutes. But, unfortunately, due to federal regulations, the women behind the counter told us that legally they weren't allowed to stay any longer and needed to leave.

"But they did mention there were about 50 seats available on that plane. We were about 33 people standing there and weren't allowed to board the plane." 

READ | 275 South Africans repatriated from US, hundreds more to arrive this week

Berlein said she was frustrated; she wanted to return home because she had been away for too long. 

"I am desperate to get home. I haven't been home in three months. And everything is very expensive here. We are staying at other people's houses; although it's comfortable and they have been great, nothing is compared to home. 

"I'm also supposed to be on chronic medication, which I can't get here. So I really need to get home," she told News24.  

'I am here, I am so young and I am here alone'

After not giving up and sending multiple emails to SAA, the consulate and her travel agent, Berlein said she eventually received an email attached with her ticket on Monday night.

She is expected to be on the repatriation flight departing on Saturday, 9 May.  

But for 19-year-old student from Johannesburg, Khanyisile Mgquba, and Shanell Hossack, from Victoria Bay outside George, they are still waiting for their confirmation and tickets. 

They were also among the group at the airport at the weekend, trying get on the SA-bound flights. But it was the same story as their names did not appear on the list. 

Mgquba said, after failing to get on the flight, they were then taken to a hotel on the embassy's bill.

"They only needed to pay for five rooms because everyone else said they could pay for themselves. I am sharing with my roommate because we travelled here together." 

Mgquba said she was frustrated because their hopes kept being raised, but they were never able to get on any of the flights. 

She said they had been receiving conflicting information from the airline and the embassy, with one blaming the other. 

"It feels frustrating, the fact that I am here, I am so young and I am here alone, is quite scary," the 19-year-old said.

Hossack, who travelled to Los Angeles in March to visit her daughter, said it was the same story for her as she struggled to get a ticket from SAA. 

Anxiety and devastation

The 58-year-old said she had paid for the flight, but was also experiencing difficulty in getting on board. She said she had been told she was on the list, but when she arrived at the airport her name was not on it. 

Hossack also reiterated how they continuously tried their luck, swiping their passports at check-in desks to see if their tickets were processed on Sunday night. 

She said, while others were having better luck and getting tickets, for others, including her, it was a different story. 

At some point, Hossack said she was in tears because she knew she was not going to make it on the plane, even though they were told there were vacant seats. 

"It looked like it was clearly inefficiency from SAA's side because they didn't get tickets through in time, and this I cannot understand because I was on the list but I couldn't get a ticket," she said.

Hossack said the events have left her devastated and traumatised.

She added that she was anxious because she still did not have a ticket for the flight departing on Saturday, 9 May, even though others had received their tickets. 

"The anxiety and devastation of not being able to get on that plane have been unbelievable. I am still traumatised. It is such a bad experience," she said. 

Hossack said all she wanted was to go home to be with her husband. She said he is also devastated because she has been away for almost two months when she was meant to be away for two weeks. 

"It's really changed me forever. It's a hard experience to go through," she said. 

Reasons for cancellation

In a reply to News24, SAA spokesperson Tlali Tlali said there were various reasons for flight cancellations, ranging from lack of details received and payments not reaching the airline's bank in time. 

He said other reasons for cancellations were that some passengers were registering with the airline, instead of the embassy. 

"A Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) approved name list is sent to SAA with proof of payment. SAA would thereafter verify that payment has been received (in our bank account). We would then issue a ticket only after the payment has been confirmed," Tlali said.

He said while there was another planned repatriation flight for 9 May from Washington DC, he could not confirm how many passengers would be on the plane because they were waiting for a list from the embassy.

Tlali added that it would "most likely be capacity full flight".

The airline has urged that passengers should not deposit money into its bank account when they had not followed the registration processes through Dirco - this was to ensure they were on the approved lists.  

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