Flight cancellation devastates stranded sailors
More than 100 Samoan sailors have had their hopes of family Christmas reunions dashed after a repatriation flight scheduled for last week was cancelled, leaving many facing uncertain futures.
A flight from Los Angeles to Samoa had been scheduled to leave for Samoa last Friday 27 November and to fly directly to Faleolo International Airport.
But amid ongoing concerns about conflicting information about the first person to return a positive test in Samoa last week, the Government announced last Wednesday that the flight had been postponed. No date was given for its rescheduling.
One sailor, Puletiu Pao Taulapapa, 49, told the Samoa Observer that for many sailors stationed overseas the announcement was devastating.
The cancellation of the flight also drew the ire of the Mediterranean Shipping Company, which employed the sailors, and said it had incurred significant costs in preparing to return them home.
The news, he said, hit particularly hard on board the M.S.C. Seaside, on which 80 Samoan sailors are on deck on a vessel at anchor off the coast of Miami, Florida.
Many had prepared to catch a five-hour flight to Los Angeles to catch the repatriation flight home.
“[The Mediterranean Shipping Company (M.S.C.)] told us the flight was canceled on Wednesday,” Puletiu said.
“We were going to get on a plane from Miami to Los Angeles. They (the Samoan Government) could have told us a week in advance that they canceled the flight.
“We were so happy. We were really looking forward to coming home. It was one day before we were going to come home. There was a letter that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (M.F.A.T.) signed off on. They canceled the flight. We were really sad. We want to come home.”
Some sailors traveled from various parts of the globe and joined their colleagues about two weeks ago to make the L.A. repatriation flight.
Puletiu said that morale among the sailors was extremely low in the wake of the announcement.
Many sailors’ contracts have expired and, in the absence of food, they rely on M.S.C. for basic needs such as room, board, meals and internet connections to their families back home.
M.S.C. has also been footing the bills for the sailors’ COVID-19 testing, ship movements, landing fees, ship movements, medical requirements, hotel accommodations, and airfare and flight connections.
The company has coordinated all medical requirements and travel arrangements for 140 sailors seeking to return to Samoa onboard the L.A. flight, according to communication between the company and the sailors.
Some 80 of those sailors are in Miami.
In a 25 November letter addressed to “All Samoan Crew,” the Personnel Director for the Swiss-Italian shipping giant, Marco Maresca, expressed his deep condolences for news of the cancellations.
The sailors were also told that the M.S.C. was holding talks with Samoan Government officials about “an urgent repatriation plan” for the sailors currently with the company.
“I am very regretful to inform you that, despite all our efforts [...] unfortunately the flight from Los Angeles to Apia (Samoa) has been suddenly canceled,” Mr. Maresca wrote.
“The flight which should have repatriated 140 Samoan crew currently engaged on our ships located in Brazil, Miami South Florida and Europe [...] has been rejected by [the Samoan] Cabinet since one [Samoan] crew member arrived home [earlier this month after] he disembarked from our ship with all medical checks plus [a] negative [COVID-19] test done 72 hours prior his disembarkation, was found [to have tested] positive to COVID-19.”
The Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Maleilegaoi, and the National Emergency Operations Centre, have since confirmed that the 23-year-old sailor contracted the virus in August and was not contagious.
The sailor, who arrived in Apia via Italy, had returned several conflicting test results before he was identified as a “historical case” which while can return positive tests does not pose a transmission risk.
Mr. Maresca’s letter noted the extensive amount that the M.S.C. had spent in preparation to have the sailors returned on the repatriation flight.
M.S.C., he wrote, had planned ship movements, obtained special permissions for sailors, arranged for their flights from Miami, Brazil, Dubai, Durban, and Italy, and paid for their hotel accommodation and medical testing to prove that they had tested negative for the virus.
The slots on the ships for the 140 Samoan sailors have since been filled with replacements and M.S.C. now has a double number of men and a surplus of duties on the M.S.C. Seaside, he added.
“As you [imagine] all this had a significant impact to M.S.C. expenses,” Mr. Maresca said.
“The situation on [the] M.S.C. Seaside [is] where [currently] we have 80 crew members with no specific duty.
“Since March 2020 [the Samoan Government has] closed its borders in order to restrain the COVID-19 spread
On the morning of 25 November, M.S.C. attended a meeting with Samoan authorities to discuss an urgent plan to reinstate the flight, he said.
“We want to ensure all we are doing our best involving all people [and] authorities who can be useful to solve as soon as possible this [...] situation,” Mr. Maresca said.
Puletiu said M.S.C. has spent some USD$300,000 to date on arranging the sailors’ repatriation.
One of their biggest concerns is a 55-year-old shipmate with a heart condition who needs medical care and whose wife is in regular contact with the company with concern for his welfare.
“One of my brothers here, he cannot work on the ship. He has a heart condition and his wife calls us to check on him and take care of him. Sometimes they will be talking on the phone and suddenly the line goes dead and she loses him,” said Puletiu.
“We all take care of him. He needs to come home. We miss our families. We miss our spouses, our children, our parents. And they were also looking forward to us coming home. On the ship, all we do is eat and sleep and look at each other. And we use Facebook to communicate with our families.”
The sailors use free Wi-Fi provided by M.S.C. to stay connected to their families.
But Puletiu claims that the sailors have begun to receive expired food while on board the ship.
“We aren’t happy at all. The ship has begun to feed us expired foods. They gave us expired drinks. We have to buy food but we are not working. We have no money. We have nothing to rely on only God,” he told the Samoa Observer.
Mr. Maresca’s letter outlining the costs incurred by the company comes just weeks after another piece of correspondence between a member of the M.S.C. and the Samoa Shipping Corporation was leaked.
The M.S.C.’s correspondence expressed frustrations at the significant expense it had incurred by hiring Samoan sailors and threatened to no longer hire seafarers from this nation.
Rocco Maresca, the company’s crew manager, wrote in a piece of leaked correspondence that because the Government was unable to guarantee the repatriation of its citizen-sailors it would no longer recruit from the country: “All [these] matters will determine our decision to not employ Samoan crew members anymore and we are seriously considering to close down our cooperation with [the] Samoan agency [Samoa Shipping Services].
“It is impossible to employ or sign off Samoan crew members at these conditions [...] as it is becoming much too expensive.”
But the state-owned Samoa Shipping Services, which is responsible for placing sailors in positions overseas, flatly rejected the leaked correspondence as a misleading piece of “sabotage”.
“To set the record straight, M.S.C. is still hiring Samoan sailors contrary to rumours,” S.S.S. Chief Executive Officer Lautimuia Afoa Uelese Va’ai wrote.
The S.S.S. said that 80 new recruits were heading to Europe before year’s end to commence work with the company.