GAO: State Had ‘Inconsistent’ Prices for COVID-19 Repatriation Flights

The State Department’s process to charge Americans for repatriation flights at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic lacked consistency, leading to inaccurate pricing and delayed billing, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO). .

the report, which was released Tuesday, analyzed the State Department’s efforts, under the former Trump administration, to repatriate more than 100,000 Americans who were stranded abroad during the chaotic first weeks of the pandemic outbreak in March 2020.

While the GAO commended the state for carrying out “a historic effort,” it made six agency recommendations to improve preparedness and highlighted shortcomings during the months of operation. The State, under the Biden administration, agreed with all six recommendations.

In particular, GAO noted the State’s process for determining flight prices.

Federal law requires the State Department to charge individuals for repatriation costs, and travelers generally sign a “promissory note” and agree to pay the cost of the flight at a later time.

The State Department did not require promissory notes or charge for flights when it carried out its mass evacuation of more than 120,000 people from Afghanistan in August.

State guidelines say that the price should not “exceed the cost of a reasonable commercial airfare immediately before the crisis.”

The oversight group analyzed the state’s process for determining flight prices and administered an online survey to 189 people who were passengers on repatriation flights between January 29 and June 5, 2020.

The survey consisted of closed and open questions, with respondents highly praising the State Department for its operation, communication of information, and personal interactions. In particular, respondents said that diplomats were helpful, warm and reassuring.

But respondents criticized the flight costs and the billing process.

In one example, the GAO singled out a repatriated American couple who paid more than $ 6,000 for a one-way state-sponsored flight from Chennai, India, to San Francisco, California, and told the oversight office: “It was too much high by any standard and even during a pandemic. “

GAO found that the State “lacked procedures to document and calculate prices. As a result, documentation of costs charged to passengers was inconsistent and processing of passenger billing was delayed. “

According to the report, the State Department distributed nearly 27,000 promissory notes at the peak of repatriation flights, worth an estimated $ 45.4 million.

Most of the people gave the money back to the State Department. Only 29 percent still have to pay their bills, which adds up to an estimated $ 13.2 million.

The GAO said that when the analysis was brought to the state, they updated their guides and procedures on evaluating the costs of repatriation flights, including capturing screenshots of market rates based on the airline, the number of specific flight and class of service.

The GAO report found that during pandemic repatriation efforts, documentation of 60 fees (about 26 percent) did not include records of fees for adults, children, and infants; the state updated its guide to take age into account when calculating rates.

The report also found that the State did not include procedures for determining the actual number of passengers on a flight when calculating the fare, which affects the determination of the cost per passenger of a State-funded charter flight.

Inconsistencies in the flight cost calculation led to delays in sending bills to returnees, the report found, and was noted as a concern among passengers.

The GAO’s findings echo concerns raised during the heyday of the repatriation process by stranded Americans, advocates, and NGOs, who said the prices of flights offered by the State Department looked like hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. above regular commercial prices.

According to the most recent guide From the State Department, Americans who accept State Department repatriation assistance and sign promissory notes generally must repay the amount within 30 days. After that, they may incur additional interest and administrative fees and risk having their passport suspended.

In March 2020, lawmakers proposed legislation that would waive fees charged to Americans requiring repatriation during the pandemic.



Reference-thehill.com

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