My Craziest Flight Story! Repatriating to Italy During COVID

The craziest experience I’ve ever had flying was in 2020 when I took a repatriation flight from the United States to Italy. This is the story of the craziest flight I’ve ever experienced, plus tips on what to expect if you ever find yourself in the situation of needing an emergency evacuation flight home.

Today over morning coffee Paolo looked at me and said “It feels like we’ve been running since March.” We are on our 7th day of a mandatory quarantine in Bardonecchia, Italy. Symptom and fever-free, we can finally relax a little and reflect on everything that’s happened. Including a rather harrowing experience with a repatriation flight chartered by the Italian government.

Crazy Repatriation Flight Story

The latest twist in our move to Italy that happened to fall smack in the middle of the COVID-19 outbreak started April 14th with a headline in La Stampa. “Coronavirus, thousands of Italians still stuck abroad: 200 kids working at DisneyWorld are waiting in Orlando.” Seeing as Paolo and I are Italian Citizens stuck in Orlando I wondered. Would the Italian government try and get the kids home?

At the time, I knew governments all around the world were working to bring citizens home. What I didn’t know was how repatriation flights worked.

After calling the Italian Consulate in Miami, Paolo discovered that, yes in fact the Italian government was working to bring citizens stuck in Orlando, home. Paolo requested we be on the list for the government-chartered repatriation flight. The Consulate required more details about our circumstances to add us to the list. We had them.

Passengers are Prioritized for Repatriation Flights

  • Due to COVID-19 our clients put our work on pause. No income.
  • After moving out of our apartment to move to Italy, we were temporarily hunkered down in Orlando. No home.
  • Paolo’s parents live in Torino. Papà at 81-years-old has been undergoing cancer treatment. Vulnerable parents.
  • Our original flight to move to Italy had been canceled. We booked a second flight with Alitalia (the only commercial airline guaranteeing flights to repatriate Italians) for May. It got canceled too. Stranded.
  • Our health insurance was in Washington. We were out-of-network in Florida. Not ideal.

The consulate agreed to add us to a waitlist. Yet there was no guarantee we would make the flight. It would come down to vulnerability and space available. They agreed to keep us informed and we crossed our fingers.

Shortly after Paolo got off the phone with the Consulate, we got a call from Alitalia. The soonest they could get us from Orlando to Italy would be June. Maybe, July. Even that was iffy. Suddenly there was a lot riding on our chance to get on a Repatriation flight.

What a Repatriation Flight Experience is Like

Knowing all the factors, that airline prices will likely skyrocket as a result of COVID-19. Commercial flights will be prone to cancellation. That there were no certain opportunities before July, our minds were made up. This was our only window of opportunity. We crossed our fingers and started packing. It’s a good thing we did.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

11:00 AM: Paolo got a call from the Italian Consulate in Miami. They confirmed a government-chartered repatriation flight was happening in a few days. We were on the list. More information was to come.

2:30 PM: We were informed the flight would be Sunday, April 19th at 11:30am. The tickets were 930€ a piece. Not cheap but repatriation flights never are. We booked two seats immediately.

Friday, April 17, 2020

My Mom’s car is adorable. A Volkswagen Beetle, with a tiny trunk. Between the two of us, we had five suitcases, three backpacks, and one pink alligator weekender bag. A Kate Spade sample sale score I simply couldn’t let go from my New York City days. There was no way our luggage would fit. We had to rent a car to get to the airport. Worried the office might be closed with the Florida lockdown, we picked an SUV up a day early. Just in case.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

8:00 AM: Face masks, glasses, and gloves on, we arrived at the private jet terminal at Orlando International Airport. While Mom and I waited at the terminal with the luggage, Paolo returned the rental car. It’s a good thing we had Mom and Mark’s help. Due to the lockdown, there were no cabs in sight and the rental car return is five miles from the private jet terminal.

8:40 AM: Paolo and Mark arrive back at the terminal in the Beetle. The wait begins.

8:45 AM: Paolo receives an email from the Consulate. “Don’t arrive at the terminal before 9:15 am.” Too late. We, along with 25 other Italians, were waiting in the parking lot already.

9:00 AM: It became clear they were going to make us wait outside in the Florida sun. We might have had a chartered flight, but there was a Boeing 737-9 parked on the tarmac, not a private jet. No terminal access would be granted. No place to sit. No bathrooms. No water. We had to wait it out in the parking lot.

9:30 AM: I asked my Mom to get on the road home. She was hesitant wanting to see us get on the plane, but I could sense what was coming and didn’t want her to watch.

10:00 AM: The crowd in the parking lot has swelled to around 40 Italians. All wearing masks, seeking shade from a few scant trees in the parking lot outside the terminal.

11:00 AM: Three giant charter buses pulled up to the parking lot. The Disney kids had arrived.

11:15 AM: The tarmac gates opened, the buses went in.

11:20 AM: Airport ground crew started waving everyone in the parking lot over.

11:33 AM: Two lines were formed. One for Rome and one for Milan. TSA was done on the tarmac beside the plane in the full strength of the Florida sun. Three folding tables made two TSA checkpoints. TSA officers (one for Rome and one for Milan) checked ID’s and crossed our names off the list at the first table. Two more TSA officers inspected carry-on bags and passengers were scanned with handheld metal detectors at the last two tables. Social distancing, out the window.

12:00 PM: We were in the shorter line for Milan. However, our TSA officer was twice as slow at baggage inspection and it was clear we were going to be among the last passengers to board. Paolo took his hat off and put it on my head. The sun was at its peak and brutal. Especially when wearing a face mask.

12:20 PM: A young woman waiting in the Rome line passed out. Many of us had been standing in the sun since 8:00 am without seats, access to bathrooms, or water. With only two TSA officers conducting manual bag checks, it was taking forever. Worried about Paolo now hatless, I wrapped a white scarf my Mom had given me around my head in the closest approximation of Jackie O I could manage. In reality with my headscarf and mask, I looked like a sweaty nurse but at least Paolo had a head covering now too.

12:33 PM: We’d cleared the first table and handed over our checked luggage to be sniffed by drug detection dogs. Silver Lining! Our luggage was not weighed or counted, so no bag check fees.

1:20 PM We finally took our seats. Social Distancing on flights these days you ask? One seat left empty between every passenger in rows of three. Only end seats are occupied in rows of four.

1:33 PM: We took off a full two hours late with 154 Italians on board. First stop, the Dominican Republic. There were more Italians en route and this was their repatriation flight too.

1:55 PM: We were handed bottles of water. My first since breakfast that morning.

3:20 PM: Touchdown. While in Florida, we were herded like cattle on a tarmac in the mid-day sun, in the Dominican Republic wheelchairs rolled out of the terminal first. Six in total, each pushed by an airport employee and accompanied by a second retiree walking six feet behind. Next up, 4 groups of 10 people each walking 6 feet apart. Already having cleared security in the terminal, they were boarded in the back of the plane to reduce exposure risks.

4:10 PM: Refueled and fully boarded, we took off. First stop, Rome. Masks were required at all times and congregating was not allowed. But stopping 20 somethings from doing so on a jet chartered for them, takes frustrated 40 somethings yelling things like “This is not a party bus, put your mask on and go sit down!” and “Don’t you watch the news at all? Go, Go!” I felt old, but I happened to be old enough not to care.

5:20 PM: We were given boxed meals that thankfully had pre-wrapped sandwiches. Terrible though they were, I was grateful we could slide them up through the packaging to eat without touching them. Other than eating a few bites and drinking bottled water through a metal straw my Mom gave me, I never took my mask off. I watched four movies back to back. I slept not a wink.

7:15 AM (local time): Touchdown in Rome. Most of the flight deplaned while those heading on to Milan stayed seated. With only five people left in the front section of the flight with us, I finally relaxed a bit.

9:10 AM: Liftoff for Milan. Fatigued I nodded off with my PPE gear on, for twenty minutes.

10:20 AM: Touchdown in Milan.

10:40 AM: Deplaned we cleared immigration and handed over documents supporting our repatriation and our quarantine details. A final temperature check later and we exited the terminal.

11:00 AM: Numb with relief and exhaustion, I sat masked and gloved waiting with the luggage. Paolo went to rent a compact station wagon. Big enough for our luggage and comfortable enough for what was ahead. We were off the plane, but the ordeal was not over yet.

11:42 AM: Paolo and I loaded up our luggage in the rental car. Right before getting in, I took my first unmasked deep breath since Sunday morning. Spring air, chilled by misty rain. It, felt, magnificent.

11:50 AM: If there was any chance we had been exposed to COVID-19 on the flight, there was zero chance we would take the risk of exposing Paolo’s parents to it. We were headed to Bardonecchia where we would quarantine for 14 days. We had two hours and twenty minutes to go.

1:00 PM: I opened the window for fresh air and blasted ‘American Woman’ on the stereo, anything to stay awake.

2:20 PM We took the Bardonecchia exit. The last stop before the Frejus tunnel to France. As we exited the roundabout, a policeman holding up a little handheld stop sign stepped away from his car. All entrances and exits for Bardonecchia were guarded 24×7. No getting in or out without permission. He had the final say. While Italy might have reacted too slow to COVID-19 in the beginning, when it did lockdown, it was tight.

Thankfully Paolo knew what was coming. He pulled out all of our paperwork, already filled out explaining where we came from, our repatriation, and our official plans to quarantine in Bardonecchia.

2:50 PM: Cleared for quarantine, the police photographed our documents and gave final instructions. We could go to Torino after our quarantine as it was our official residence but then we had to stay put until nationwide lockdown restrictions were lifted.

3:00 PM: Standing on her balcony the building’s Super (Doris) tossed Paolo keys. Doris, a family friend had already stocked our apartment with groceries for the quarantine before we arrived.

3:20 PM We locked ourselves in and as instructed. No going out for any reason. Not even a walk for exercise.

3:30 PM: Paolo called the health authorities to confirm we were in quarantine starting now. We were given a confirmation code and further instructions.

4:00 PM An email arrived from our assigned quarantine doctor with more instructions. Information about how to properly quartine, logging our daily temperature and signs to watch out for health-wise.

4:15 PM I segmented orange and cracked walnuts as a small snack.

4:30 PM We fell into a very deep sleep. The ordeal was finally done.

7:00 PM The Bardonecchia church bells tolled waking us up in time for dinner. One episode of ‘The Bank Heist’ later and we fell right back asleep until 12:30 PM the next day.

With my Sister in Michigan, Mom in Florida, and Dad in Ohio, leaving America during COVID-19 was extremely hard for me. No matter where I am in the world, I’m always missing someone I love. I broke down and cried openly when my Mom drove away from the airport in Orlando. We’d had an entire month together but we’re all numb and coping right now with so much loss in the world. While we all have more free time, making it productive, quality time feels daunting.

My comfort is twofold.

One, Paolo will soon get real-time with his parents and despite coming all the way here he promised me something important. No matter what, if my family needs me, just like we found our way here, we’ll find our way back to America. I believe him, after all, he did get us to Italy during COVID-19 lockdowns.

Two, despite having lost our income due to COVID-19 and winding up nomadic from an ill-timed move, we have our health, hopes, and dreams and that’s something to be grateful for. That and all the help we received along the way. I have long been more willing to give than to take help. Paolo is the same. It’s never been about pride, but rather feeling there is not enough help to go around. Surely someone else needs it more than us.

Along this journey, our neighbors, friends, government, and most of all our parents and even their friends have helped us. If there’s one good thing to come out of all this, perhaps it will be knowing there are people all around us ready to help. Even when we don’t think we need it. Maybe now we’ll slow down more often to see and be open to it.

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