Delta planes parked at Hartsfield-Jackson after the airline cut flights. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Travelers stuck in Honduras charter flight back to United States

For a group of travelers stuck on an Honduran island, it took a flurry of messages in a chat group, a private charter flight that cost more than $1,300 per passenger and an all-night drive from Miami to get back home.

Nine vacationing friends from Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee ended up stranded after their March 21 Delta Air Lines flight to Atlanta was canceled. Airlines suspended flights after the Honduran government closed borders due to the coronavirus pandemic, then announced a curfew. The cancellation of Latin American flights on Delta and other carriers as borders closed made it difficult for Americans to get home.

The friends, all over age 50, had been staying at a resort in Roatan since March 14. They were rescheduled for a Delta flight this coming Saturday, but that flight ended up being canceled too.

With conditions on the island deteriorating, as most grocery stores and pharmacies closed, members of the group started making calls. Then someone heard about a WhatsApp chat room for the hundreds of Americans who were trying to leave Honduras.

Gerald Smith, 58, had never heard of WhatsApp before joining the chat in an attempt to find a way back home from Roatan. But it was through that app that the friends learned of a company offering a chartered flight back to the United States. At the time, Global Guardian didn’t yet have the required permit for the flight from the Honduran government, he said.

“They said we would have to have it paid up front,” said Smith, who lives in Anderson, S.C. “There was a lot of speculation about, ‘Is this a scam? Are we all going to get taken?’” Still, it seemed like their best hope. He and the others in his group put their names on the list.

Wendi Washowich, who lives in Woodstock, said the feeling was “that we had to pray about it, and take a leap of faith and get on the charter.”

Smith said that before leaving for the vacation, he and the others spent days discussing whether to take the trip.

They knew there was “a chance that things might get worse,” Smith said. “But we never thought they would actually cancel all the flights really abruptly.”

Global Guardian, a security firm based in Tysons Corner, Va., handles emergency evacuations. Company officials found out about the travelers stuck in Roatan through a client who had a friend on the island when the borders closed.

Smith said the travelers were told that it would cost more than $1,300 a person if the plane was full and $2,300 per person if it was only half full.

“They wanted to find out if there was truly enough interest to put the deal together,” Smith said.

When invoices from the company came Saturday around 11 p.m., the friends “all started paying with a credit card that night, eager to confirm their spots on the plane.

Global Guardian held Zoom meetings with passengers to brief them on the evacuation details. Because of the curfew, they needed special permission from the U.S. Consul General to travel to the airport.

They were told to get to the airport Sunday morning for the flight. Then there were several hours of waiting.

“Everybody was still wondering, OK, is this flight really going to go? Do they really have a permit? Is the Honduran government really going to let them land?” Smith said. Later that afternoon, they finally started boarding the plane, then more time passed before the flight actually took off.

At first, “everybody was nervous and quiet,” said another member of the group, Sharon Alford of Dawsonville.

“When the plane actually lifted off, everybody started cheering and clapping,” Smith said.

Then, when it touched ground in Miami with 144 Americans arriving back in the United States, there was more cheering and singing among the relieved passengers.

“We were thrilled that we were able to step in and bring this group of Americans back home,” said Global Guardian CEO Dale Buckner in a written statement.

Separately, the U.S. military evacuated a group of Americans, including members of a women’s football team, from Honduras to Charleston, S.C. on a U.S. Air Force C-130 last Friday.

The U.S. Department of State said 13,500 American citizens have asked for help returning from abroad. It has assisted more than 1,100 people trying to back due to the COVID-19 outbreak. However, the State Department said it still recommends citizens to use commercial travel options because repatriation flights are not its standard practice.

After landing in Miami on Sunday evening, the friends rented cars to drive home immediately. Washowich’s husband, Todd, had run out of his heart medication. Alford’s husband, Vernon, diagnosed with late-stage cancer, wanted to be get back home for his next round of chemotherapy treatment later this week.

“We just drove all night to get back to Atlanta,” taking shifts at the wheel, Smith said. After being awake for about 31 hours on a long journey that began Sunday morning, they finally arrived Monday afternoon.

Other Americans are still stuck overseas, working to get home. And not everyone can afford a private charter.

Global Guardian said more requests for evacuations are coming in from around the world.

U.S. Sen. David Perdue’s office is still working to get travelers back home from Honduras, Peru, Morocco, Guatemala and elsewhere, according to the senator’s spokeswoman, Casey Black.

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