'Total Pandemonium': Trump’s Abrupt European Travel Ban Sows Chaos

The White House's lack of clarity and failure to coordinate with the travel industry means airports have been alternately mobbed and deserted.

Leah Rachel von Essen was asleep in a Spanish Airbnb in the early hours of Thursday morning, local time, when the Trump administration’s surprise European travel ban quickly sent her packing.

“I woke up at 3:30am to about four missed calls and a billion texts from my parents,” she said.

Travel writer Christine Lee, meanwhile, was in bed in Prague.

“My husband woke me up. He never wakes me up,” she told HuffPost.

On Wednesday night, as doctors and public health officials worried about the US health system’s woefully inadequate testing abilities in the face of a nationwide coronavirus outbreak, Donald Trump announced that flights from Europe to the US would be halted for one month starting Friday, with an exception for flights from the UK.

Details were hazy — it was not immediately apparent to Americans abroad that US citizens were not affected by the ban, or when, exactly, it took effect.

“First we were told that Trump said Friday at midnight, and so we were like, Friday in the morning or Friday at night?” Lee recalled (the ban began Friday at 11.59pm ET – 3.59am GMT).

Von Essen said that she and her parents both believed that if she did not get out of Spain immediately, she would be stuck there for the next 30 days. She rushed to the airport to see scores of American university students waiting and trying to figure out what was going on, too.

Their anxieties were shared by an untold number of travellers, some of whom were in the air destined for Europe when they discovered the news.

In subsequent hours, Trump repeatedly muddied the waters, declaring that those Americans returning from Europe would be screened or tested for the virus, and some would be asked to undergo voluntary quarantines. He reiterated the policies at a press conference on Friday, though it remained unclear at press time what those policies would actually look like in practice.

The EU, which was not consulted before Trump’s announcement, issued a strongly worded statement denouncing it. They said coronavirus, which has devastated parts of Italy after sickening tens of thousands in China, “is a global crisis, not limited to any continent and it requires cooperation rather than unilateral action.’’

The Trump administration’s move also came as a shock to the travel industry, flight attendants union president Sara Nelson told HuffPost. Some planes from Europe that were only supposed to be half-full were suddenly packed, leading to food and beverage shortages on some long-haul flights.

“There was no communication with the industry. No coordination,” Nelson said. Under normal circumstances, she explained, such a ban could take months of coordination between airlines and government agencies tasked with carrying out the president’s order. The industry was given mere hours.

“We had stories of passengers who were buying $25,000 (£19,158) tickets from Europe because they were so concerned about getting back to the United States.”

- Sara Nelson, flight attendants union president

Both passengers and flight attendants waiting on flights bound for Europe were thrown off guard. Flight attendants, some of whom were scheduled for three-day trips, weren’t sure they would be allowed back into the country. Passengers wondered the same.

“It was total pandemonium,” Nelson said. Some passengers opted not to board their flights at all rather than risk being unable to easily return.

“On the flip side,” Nelson said, “we had stories of passengers who were buying $25,000 (£19,158) tickets from Europe because they were so concerned about getting back to the United States before any sort of travel ban would be in place.”

The industry’s problems are far from over. With so much uncertainty coupled with workplace moratoriums on non-essential travel, many people are abandoning the idea of flying altogether. Boarding zones at US airports such as Newark, New Jersey, Atlanta and other cities were eerily empty following the ban.

Jennifer Berry Hawes, a reporter for South Carolina’s Post and Courier, said Wednesday night she decided to “abandon” her flight to Paris, where the same night a New York Times reporter documented scenes of “bedlam” at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport.

Von Essen, who works for the University of Chicago, was able to fly from Seville to Madrid, then from Madrid to London, and finally from London to Chicago. She called herself “extremely lucky” to have had help from her parents during the ordeal. Lee and her husband, meanwhile, were able to catch flights from Prague to Frankfurt, Germany, and from Frankfurt to Los Angeles.

The chaotic scenes sparked by the Trump administration’s sudden announcement struck many travelers as illogical. After all, if the White House wanted to mitigate Americans’ exposure to the virus, why force panicked travelers into long lines and crowds at airports ― exactly the opposite of the “social distancing” public health officials are urging?

Asked how US officials were going to handle the influx of travellers who had recently visited areas affected by the coronavirus, Trump made big promises.

“We’ll have them very heavily tested. If an American is coming back or if anybody is coming back, we’re testing. We have a tremendous testing setup where people coming in have to be tested, and if they are positive, and they’re able to get through, because, frankly, if they’re not, we’re not putting them on planes if it shows positive,” Trump said Thursday afternoon. “If they do come here, they are going to be quarantined. It’s going to be a pretty strong enforcement of quarantine.”

Lee and Von Essen both said the screening they faced upon their return to the U.S. was no more stringent than usual.

Asked whether she was hearing about any screening efforts at airports for passengers and staff, Nelson responded definitively.