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U.S. Transportation Command assisted Americans stranded abroad – due to heightened COVID-19 travel restrictions – return stateside

  • Published
  • By Michael P. Kleiman

Since its formation on March 27, 2020, the U.S. Transportation Command’s Repatriation Coordination Cell organized the stateside return of more than 3,900 Americans stranded abroad due to tightened COVID-19 travel limitations imposed by numerous countries.

Supporting the Department of State’s efforts to bring American citizens home as the pandemic spread across the globe, the USTRANSCOM unit, which stood down in mid-May, contracted 14 separate commercial charter airlift missions, transporting many thousands back to the U.S. from five different African and Asian nations.

The process to achieve these repatriations began with the command’s Repat Coord Cell receiving a request from DOS’ Repatriation Task Force.  Following validation of DOS’ requirement, they verified the number of passengers and provided the information to USTRANSCOM’s Directorate of Acquisition for commercial air carrier response. Next, after confirming mission details with DOS, the Repat Coord Cell, comprised of a dozen core members, submitted the finalized package to USTRANSCOM’s air component, the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command (618th Air Operations Center), for further synchronization with the contracted charter airlift.

“Leading the Repat Coord Cell has been a unique and rewarding experience, as I had not worked with the command’s Directorate of Acquisition or any of the commercial air carriers before.  I also learned how DOS attacks problems from the whole-of-government approach,” said U.S. Army Col. Aaron Angell, chief, Joint Operational Support Airlift Center Division, USTRANSCOM’s Operations Directorate. “During the cell’s seven-week existence, our priority was administrative oversight of the command’s repatriation operations, as well as to serve as a link between USTRANSCOM and DOS.”

During the workweek, the Repat Coord Cell normally operated from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., but also executed its duties on the weekend, when required.  To ensure unity of effort, they participated in two daily teleconferences – morning and afternoon – with DOS’ Transportation Cell and attended another midday phone session with USTRANSCOM.  A majority of the Repat Coord Cell’s primary participants also continued to serve in their regular jobs, and in this capacity, they provided the expertise and experience for the command’s assistance to DOS.

“USTRANSCOM’s Repat Coord Cell quickly formed with command and AMC professionals who provided DOS with responsive commercial airlift supporting movement from different parts of the globe,” stated U.S. Air Force Maj. Christopher Moyano, Commercial Industry Branch, USTRANSCOM’s Operations Directorate. “The combined efforts of USTRANSCOM, AMC, DOS, and commercial industry saw the safe return of over 3,900 Americans on chartered airlift, overcoming an unprecedented restricted environment.”

USTRANSCOM-contracted, commercial charter airlift supporting DOS’ repat endeavors consisted of Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines, and Omni Air International.  Occasionally, the command’s Repat Coord Cell also organized military aircraft transport of Americans from overseas locations. To date, approximately 522 U.S. citizens returned stateside via gray-tail opportune airlift.

“The emerging requirements associated with the COVID-19 global pandemic highlighted the importance of USTRANSCOM’s long-standing relationship with U.S.-flagged, Civil Reserve Air Fleet carriers and also showcased their unmatched flexibility and keen responsiveness throughout,” said U.S. Army Maj. Keith Shanklin, Commercial Industry Branch, USTRANSCOM’s Operations Directorate.

Throughout April 2020, commercial airlift missions, administered by USTRANSCOM’s Repat Coord Cell, departed from Abuja and Lagos, Nigeria; Yangon, Myanmar; Dakar, Senegal; Dhaka, Bangladesh; as well as Islamabad and Karachi, Pakistan, transporting 3,915 Americans and lawful permanent residents stateside to Dulles International Airport, Dulles, Virginia.

“DOS undertook a herculean effort to repatriate tens of thousands of Americans, and working with them to do our part was rewarding.  This experience showed how quickly the team of professionals at USTRANSCOM can adapt operations to support another agency’s effort,” stated Angell. “This team of teams came together and accomplished the mission despite the challenges of operating in a COVID-19 environment.”

USTRANSCOM exists as a warfighting combatant command to project and sustain military power at a time and place of the nation’s choosing. Powered by dedicated men and women, we underwrite the lethality of the Joint Force, we advance American interests around the globe, and we provide our nation's leaders with strategic flexibility to select from multiple options, while creating multiple dilemmas for our adversaries.