[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – Today, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) announced legislation to compensate Americans who incurred high international travel costs when returning home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Repatriation Reimbursement Act would require U.S. commercial airlines and the State Department to reimburse and waive those travel costs.
“This legislation will reimburse Americans who were forced to rack up outrageous travel costs as they scrambled to get home due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Blumenthal said. “Many were stranded abroad with dwindling travel options, forced to pay high sums in a desperate bid to return home, and facing uncertain – often difficult – economic conditions upon their return. This bill will directly help the tens of thousands of Americans who found themselves in that dire situation during this global pandemic.”
On March 19, the State Department issued a Level 4 Health Advisory, instructing all Americans to avoid all international travel due to the global impact of COVID-19. This travel advisory urged American citizens to seek commercial departure options to return to the United States, unless they were prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period. Meanwhile, numerous countries closed their borders and airports and cancelled flights, leaving Americans stranded without return options. This forced thousands of Americans to pay exorbitantly high prices for any remaining tickets or sign promissory notes to the State Department to reimburse for chartered flights in an effort to get home. USA Today reported that on March 12th, one-way flights from Paris to New York through United Airlines, American Airlines, and Delta cost between $2,000 and $7,300. Yahoo Money reported one American family of six spent nearly $20,000 to book an earlier flight from Paris to Seattle when President Trump announced all travel from Europe would be halted. The ban was later clarified as only applying to Europeans and not U.S. citizens or legal residents, but the family was not able to make adjustments to their itinerary.
Among other provisions, the Repatriation Reimbursement Act will require U.S. commercial airlines to provide cash reimbursements to Americans for any international flight to the United States cancelled or delayed more than 24 hours as a result of COVID-19, waive and reimburse change fees for replacing an international flight ticket, and prohibit airlines from charging passengers more for a replacement ticket than paid for the original. The bill would apply to travel beginning on December 31, 2019 and end on September 30, 2020. To reimburse these travel fees, the legislation authorizes passenger airlines to use the $25 billion in loans and loan guarantees appropriated in the CARES Act, but not the $25 billion in grants to keep workers paid.
The legislation would also require the State Department to waive travel expenses paid by the State Department for American citizens to return home, nullify any travel expense promissory notes these travelers needed to sign, reimburse American citizens for any international costs for travel to a foreign airport or domestic airport home, and require the State Department create an online claim reimbursement system. The legislation would apply to the State Department for COVID-19 as well as future pandemics or international crises. To reimburse or waive these travel costs, the legislation authorizes the State Department to use any funding made available in any appropriations Act enacted after March 1, 2020.
The Repatriation Reimbursement Act is co-sponsored by U.S. Senators Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NM).
The full text of the legislation is available here.
Earlier this month, Blumenthal led a group of 11 senators calling for the State Department to take steps to secure the immediate and safe return of the tens of thousands of Americans still stranded abroad due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That letter is available here.