A little mop-up operation

OK, I think we’re really done this time.

This was the fifth time that we put people on planes, but we’re calling this one flight 4.1.

Ominous Airline was contractually bound to give us 365 seats on our previous flight.  They failed to do so.  After they off-boarded 20-some people on their flight, they were obligated to come back and pick them up. Which meant yet another trip to the airport in a hazmat suit.

Guess who?

We didn’t have as many people this time, and they had been checked in already for the prior flight.  So we didn’t need as many people this time, and we didn’t have to be at the airport as long. In fact, the plane left early this time. The fact that Ominous Airline didn’t use their own plane this time might have something to do with the efficiency.

I like how, from this angle, the U.S. flag looks like a necktie. Bonus points for anyone who can identify that yellow thing in my hand.

Although hundreds of people have since contacted us asking for help leaving the country, I think we’re done now. The state of the outbreak here is serious. The Embassy’s medical officer is more and more vocal that these airport adventures are dangerous for everyone, both passengers and Embassy personnel. We should not be exposing our people to the virus. I don’t disagree. I had a bit of a sore throat and a cough a few days after the flight, and even though it passed quickly, and I had no fever, it was still a scare.

I had to self-isolate at home for a week. Now I’m ready to get back to work.

“This will end when we stop being good at it”

An insightful quote from one of the officers at post. She made this observation as we were preparing for our fourth and probably final charter flight out of Dhaka. In some strange way, we have been victims of our own success.

We did a good job of filling the planes the first three times around (we set the world-wide record for percentage of seats filled on our flights). I guess the Department figured that we were efficient enough to justify a fourth flight.

We were successful in evacuating over 900 people over our first three flights. And the demand for additional flights continued. The Ambassador decided that we would continue. As long as there were Americans who wanted out, and as long as the State Department would subsidize the flights, we would try to get Americans back to America.

Of course, while we have been evacuating Americans, the pandemic situation in Bangladesh has been intensifying. This is the most densely-populated country in the world, and the local healthcare infrastructure is woefully unprepared to treat an outbreak. We were ordered to wear PPE at the airport.

We had spent several days building out flight manifest, negotiating with the charter airline, which we jokingly named “Ominous Air.” We thought that was funny at the time. Later on, we discovered the meaning of the word “irony.”

The calm before the storm

The day started out normally enough. A huge crowd of people showed up at the airport, with way too much luggage. We did our check-in process. We even managed to fill the plane, this time to 100% capacity.

That’s when things went off the rails.

Ominous Air informed us that we had to off-board 16 people because of a problem with the emergency exit doors. We re-did the passeger manifest, keeping vulnerable people (elderly, health problems, etc) on the plane. People were paged and told that the couldn’t travel. Then the off-board number grew to 36. Then it went down to 28. In the end, we had to de-plane 27 people. We did all of the work, from the passenger manifest to contacting the passengers. Ominous Air contracted with a local ground support team that was supposed to do that. Then why did we do it? Good question. We’re still asking ourselves that.

Then we had to get the luggage from these 27 unlucky people off the plane. Ominous Air didn’t have a computerized luggage tracking system, and the ground service company didn’t seem to want to look at luggage tags and identify suitcases. We we did it. Why? Excellent question. Two of my coworkers and I crawled into the guts of the plane to look for the luggage.

This is not a task that you want to do.
So glad that I work with good people. Otherwise this job would really suck sometimes.

The plane finally took off seven hours late. Many passengers were grumpy (to put it mildly). The emails and phone calls from family members poured in overnight, asking for landing times, wanting information about the status of the flight. This is a real public-relations mess. Our credibility has taken a serious hit.

I guess we aren’t good at this anymore. So maybe it will end now?

I might get used to this, but it won’t happen soon.

The charter flights continue. The State Department is still encouraging American citizens to return to the United States. Here in Dhaka, we are still chartering airplanes to get people home. This week was our third go-round. This time, we told ourselves, it would be smooth. We knew what we were doing this time. We learned from our mistakes. We can prevent problems, anticipate any complications, and it will all run like clockwork.

We developed a new registration system, we made phone calls, answered emails, sent out information. We confirmed people for the flight.

Then the Bangladesh government extended the government shutdown, and declared a curfew. People kept getting sick. The police set up roadblocks to discourage people from going out.

On Game Day, we got (temporarily) locked out of the airport.

Airport is locked, and we can’t find the key. Oh, how I wish that were a joke.

In the airport, I was walking back and forth between two ends of the departure lobby. On one side of the building we checked in confirmed passengers, and on the other side, we checked in the standby passengers. I filled my daily exercise quota just from covering that distance several times.

It’s not that big of an airport, but when you walk the length several times a day, the steps add up.

I’m forcing myself to look on the bright side of the day. We created some really amazing consular success stories. One PhD student has been stranded in Bangladesh with his infant daughter. He needed to renew his student visa before he could return to the United States, but his passport was locked up in the offices of our courier company. All businesses are closed by the government shutdown order, including our courier service. We coordinated with the company to open the office especially for the student so that he could collect his passport. Then he brought it to the Embassy, where I issued the visa, our locally-engaged staff printed it, and he whisked off to the airport.

A married couple has some health issues and needed to get to the United States. Problem was, only one of them is a U.S. citizen. So we opened the visa window for the non-citizen spouse, issued a visa, and printed it the morning of the flight.

Some people drove eight-plus hours from remote parts of the country to get to the capital city airport. An hour before the airline’s check-in counter closed, a couple rushed into the airport. They said that police road blocks and checkpoints meant that it took them three hours to get to the airport.

But I also had a huge disappointment. Our email inbox on Game Day had several notifications that people cancelled. Understandable. People are getting sick, others are being warned away by their families in the United States. But a lot of people just didn’t show up for the flight. Instead of a full flight, which I was hoping for, we sent the plane off with 30 empty seats. I received that news after having walked round the airport all morning, then standing at the airline check-in desk for over two hours, reviewing every passport. The news, that we would be so far from full, was hard to take. I was so visibly upset that the DCM (deputy chief of mission, #2 officer in the Embassy), who was monitoring the situation, asked if I needed to take a break.

Even after the flight was fully booked, people had been calling us, begging and crying to get on the flight. We told them: come to the airport, we can out them on standby, maybe, just maybe, we can put you on the plane. Our standby list grew to 92 people. Surely, I felt, we would fill every one of the 358 seats on the plane. But we failed.

Still, we filled to 92% capacity, which set a new record for charter flights that embassies and consulates around the world are organizing. And the silver lining to the large number of no-shows is that every single person who came to the airport got on the plane. That’s not nothing.

Social distancing group photo. What a strange world we are now living in.

This is really meaningful work. The safety of U.S. citizens is our #1 priority. I love working closely with the dedicated officers and LE staff. But after a month of 12- to16-hour days, we are all physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted.

Another Week, Another Charter Flight

We learned a lot from the first time we did a charter flight. So when we did the second one yesterday (after many days of preparation), it went a lot smoother. Many problems, headaches, and much heartburn. But in the end we got 321 322 people out.

What a beautiful sight.

Again, everyone from the Embassy came down to the Consular section to help out. Once again, we spent days calling people, building a passenger list.

We partnered with an airline, and on Game Day, we worked side-by-side to get people checked in and on the plane.

The airline checked the passports, then I checked them again.
A panorama from my position at the airline check-in desk.
Airline employees in pink hazmat suits helping passengers.

At literally the last hour, one of our General Services guys drove to a lady’s house, picked her up, and delivered her to the airport. That boosted our total passenger list from 321 people to 322.

After it was all over, I ran into a few of the airline employees, and we congratulated each other on a job well done.
Wave that flag!

We always say that American citizens are our #1 priority. We proved that again this week. Every Foreign Service officer has to do a Consular tour for two years, regardless of their chosen area of specialization (political, economic, management, public diplomacy). So everyone has Consular experience. I’m so grateful to my colleagues in the other sections of the Embassy who gave us a week of their time to work on this effort. When an emergency happens, we’re all Consular officers.

We don't have the luxury of being irritated

The safety of U.S. citizens is the State Department’s #1 priority. That’s what we always say in the Foreign Service, and we had the opportunity to prove it this week.

Last week, the airlines stopped offering flights out of the country. Thousands of private American citizens are still in the country, many of them wanting to return to the United States.

When that happens, our standard procedure is to find a way to get U.S. citizens home. We have a few different options. We can work with airlines to open new commercial flights, or we can organize a charter flight. In some (very extreme, very complicated, and very, very expensive) cases, we can work with the military. That last scenario really only happens when there is a complete breakdown in social order, and the country is on the brink of war. Things are not that bad here in Bangladesh, and no one really expects the situation to deteriorate that much.

So we went with the best option that was available to us: organizing a charter flight.

Here is a little background reading:

https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/foreign-affairs/2020/03/29/us-american-citizens-returning-from-bangladesh-voluntarily

https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/30/state-department-playbook-stranded-americans-155832

I’m not embarrassed to admit that I am not an airline. I have no idea how to take reservations for a flight, coordinate with an airline and airport authorities, prioritize a passenger list, check people in for flights, and tell people on standby to sit down and wait for me to call them. But that’s what I have been working on for the last week or so. Working with a huge team of my fellow officers, and our locally-engaged staff from the Embassy, we put in 12- to 14-hour days. We had to build a manifest by taking emails and phone calls, then calling people, calling them again, and then calling them a third time. Another group negotiated with an airline to contract a special flight. We had to coordinate with the local authorities to get permission for the plane to land. A million little details that we had to learn on the fly.

Sure, our colleagues in other countries have done this, too, but so much of the arrangements depends on local conditions. We couldn’t just copy what other embassies did. We kept telling ourselves that we were making it up as we went along. The whole worldwide COVID-19 situation is so unique that no one really knows the best way to do this kind of evacuation.

Yesterday was “game day.” The day of the flight. We had the airport to ourselves. All commercial flights were cancelled. We set up our check-in station. A “Solutions Center” helped people who didn’t have their paperwork in order. We originally was going to call it the “troubleshooting center,” but I had a big problem with using the word “shooting” in an airport. Thanks to HvG for the alternative phrase!

They tell us to put a USA flag in plain sight so people know where to go.

Hundreds of people showed up to get on the plane. Yes, some citizens got upset, some complained, some were indignant at the inconvenience, a few didn’t think they should have to pay for the ticket, etc, etc. The Ambassador told me a few days ago: “We don’t have the luxury of being irritated.” And he was right. Our job was to project a cool, calm manner, and to try our hardest not to add to the noise.

People showed up. The airport was crowded but people were cooperative and calm.
Ten points to the person who recognizes the lady in the yellow hat.

A lot of people from other sections of the Embassy came and helped out. We were able to process everyone and get them to the airline counter to check in.

The airline employees were careful to the point of wearing hazmat suits.
The airline employees wanted a photo with the Ambassador. Who wouldn’t?

At the end of a very long day, after a very long week, we got a few hundred Americans on the plane back to the United States. And that’s what it’s all about: being there for U.S. citizens.

This was my favorite sight:

“Departed.” What a beautiful word!

I never want to do this again, but it looks like we will have to. As long as there are stranded Americans in country, our job is to try to get them home. We’ll do our best, but I really wish commercial flights would start back up. I want to stop being the worst airline in the world.

Duck and Cover

It’s a part of life in the Foreign Service.

Every week the Marine Security Guards test the emergency notification system in the Embassy, to make sure that the various alarms are working and that we know what they sound like. Most of the time we don’t have to do anything during the test, just be aware of it. As long as the MSGs announce ahead of time that it’s a test, we don’t have to react.

But sometimes the security officers want to ensure that we can react if there is a real emergency. So when the alarm goes off unannounced, we have to assume that it’s the real thing and respond appropriately.

A Duckin and a Coverin. It’s a Foreign Service thing.

Which is why I found myself sitting under my desk in the middle of the morning.

Luckily I had a fresh cup of coffee with me at the time, so I used the time productively.

How was your day?

I have proof that this was not my fault

Security is a real thing when you’re posted overseas, especially in so-called “high threat” areas. Where we’re living now is a high threat area. Besides garden-variety crime, terrorism is a real concern. That’s why my house has a high wall around it, and why there are guards on duty on the grounds 24/7.

In this scenario, getting locked out of one’s house is a big deal. An obvious corollary is that losing one’s house keys is also a pretty big deal.

When a certain member of my household first arrived at post, she wasn’t quite clear on the whole “lock the doors and carry your keys with you” arrangement. We were on our way home after work one day, and she suddenly realized that she didn’t have the house keys. When she left the house that morning, the housekeeper was still home, so she didn’t think to bring our keys with her. Waiting in our driveway while the post’s security folks drove over with an emergency key, swatting the mosquitos, will not make my Top Ten Highlights of this tour.

This week it was my turn. I felt pretty stupid when I couldn’t find my keys. Luckily, by this time, we each had a set, so we weren’t locked out of our house (THIS TIME). Still, I lost the moral high ground when I had to admit that I couldn’t find my keys. She was pretty cool about it, didn’t lord it over me (too badly). But I was mad at myself for being so irresponsible.

The regional security office wasn’t impressed, either. “Time to change the locks” was the official declaration. So the facilities folks had to come over and change the locks. I got charged for the core change. I suspect that I was also branded as “one of those irresponsible State Department fools.” But at least we each had a set of house keys, and The Bad Guys wouldn’t be able to enter our house.

They say that washing your car is the best way to make it rain. By the same logic, maybe changing the locks is the best way to find your keys.

But this time it wasn’t my fault. She found the keys in the pocket of her pants. Not my pants. Hers. I have proof. And even better, she admits that it wasn’t my fault. Of course she doesn’t quite admit that it’s her fault, but I’ll still count that as a win.

Folk Dance in Bangladesh

Last weekend the locally-engaged staff organized a group outing. We went to a resort outside of Dhaka. It was nice to get away from the traffic of the city and spend time with my coworkers in a social setting.

Another group was also using the resort. They put on some performances. I shamelessly eavesdropped on them. Also they were really loud so it was hard to ignore them. The singing didn’t do anything for me, but I was struck by the folk dances.

Busted

Me: Blathering on, for a good five minutes, about my favorite pen. It’s a great pen, it’s a perfect pen, I used to import them from Japan because I couldn’t find them in America, and I’m so bummed that they’re not making them anymore, and I’ve been looking for a new favorite kind of pen, but I can’t find one, so I’m really bummed about that…

Co-worker: Were you ever a teacher at some point in your life?

I’m almost sure this wasn’t my fault

As the Accountable Officer, I’m responsible for locking up our unused visas and passports at the end of every day. We keep them in a very secure, very heavy safe. We keep all of our visas in one safe (big mistake). The safe is kept secure (too secure) by a special kind of electronic/mechanical combination lock. The Department is very clear that we have to use this special kind of lock, because of how secure they are. In fact, the locks are made by the same company that secures the US gold reserves at Fort Knox.

We found out just how secure they are last week, when the lock malfunctioned and we were locked out of the safe.

The security guy at post said that he knew a few tricks to try to get the lock working again. He suggested tipping it on its side. My boss and I exchanged a glance that said: “I’m middle-aged, you’re middle-aged, and he wants us to do what, now?” Already heavy even when it’s empty, when it’s full of visa foils, the darn thing weighs a ton, literally. But the security guy (a much, much younger guy than us) said that gravity can help the lock mechanism engage. Piece of cake, he said.

Tipping that damn thing on it side was most definitely not a piece of cake, and it also did not work.

Then he handed me a ball-peen hammer and said: “OK, I’m going to spin the wheel. When I tell you to, hit it as hard as you can, right here (three millimeters from his hand), but don’t hit my fingers.”

That didn’t work either (no surprise there), but I didn’t hit his fingers (big surprise there). At least there was no screaming that afternoon.

My boss thought that we’d have to get the facilities guys to come over and cut it open with a welding torch or something. When we asked them about that idea, the facilities guys sort of laughed at us, then hung up the phone.

In the end, they had to use a special diamond-tipped saw blade to cut open the safe. I took some pictures of the process, but the security guy forbade me from posting them online. He didn’t want this blog post to turn into a how-to guide on breaking into a State Department safe in 700 easy steps. Ask me next time we meet up, though, I’ll show you. They’re pretty funny.

So now we have one less safe to store our stuff in. We had to reshuffle our stuff around in our other safes to make room. Even though the security guy told me that this happens occasionally, and the the locks give out after years of use, I feel bad about having had to destroy a piece of equipment.

But at the same time, I have a satisfying feeling of revenge. That drawer that we cut open was the same drawer that ka-chunked my finger a few months ago.

Take that, you evil safe.