Travelers at European airports faced chaos, surging prices, and uncertainty as they scrambled to react to Donald Trump’s Wednesday announcement that severe restrictions would be imposed on travel from the continent to the U.S.—made significantly worse by a series of bullshit claims made by the president during his address.
The president explicitly stated during the speech that as of Friday, “all” travel from Europe to the U.S. other than from the UK would be banned due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which he largely blamed on Europe rather than serious U.S. unpreparedness under his watch. In reality, the travel restrictions only apply to foreign nationals who are not exempt and who had spent any of the last 14 days in the Schengen Area, a group of 26 European countries with mutually open borders.
The White House only clarified this after the address and as many people, including U.S. citizens, were panicking and trying to make return arrangements before March 13 passed. Even U.S. ambassadors were reportedly caught off guard by the address, having not received any prior warning, as was the State Department, which wasn’t told specifics.
Anna Grace, a U.S. student in Europe flying home from Madrid’s Barajas airport, told Reuters that “It caused a mass panic.” Gregory and Ada Goldberg, two Americans trying to expedite a flight from Barcelona to San Francisco, told the network, “This was meant to be two weeks of pleasant vacation but it has become a nightmare.”
New York Times reporter Mike McIntire tweeted early Thursday morning (eastern time) that Roissy Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris was a disaster, with some people shelling out up to $20,000 for remaining seats to stateside before Friday. Many travelers were not aware of the White House’s post-address corrections and believed that they would be prevented from boarding flights or denied entry when they arrived in the United States, according to McIntire. Airlines with U.S. flights were reportedly unable to keep up with a deluge of customer service requests. The only bright spot was that air travel from people not rushing to enter the U.S. has already plummeted.
“I see Americans crying at the airport right now worried about their jobs and coming home,” Berkeley, California man Muhammed Alameldin, who was trying to fly back to the U.S. from Barcelona with his fiance Monique Sanchez, told NBC News. “... My flight was canceled and I’ve been in line for over three hours waiting to transfer or get a voucher for my flight. No one has heard or seen anything thus far. It’s a failure in U.S. policy and shows that the president doesn’t know how to take care of Americans abroad.”
NBC News journalist Shannon Ho confirmed another frantic scene at Berlin-Tegel Airport in Germany, saying there was “Lots of chaotic energy in Tegel right now.” Ho talked with travelers who had tried to reschedule flights at 3 a.m., cut trips short by weeks, and found out about Trump’s announcement in the middle of nightlife, according to NBC. The network wrote that KLM spokesperson Madelon van der Hof confirmed that a similar scene was playing out at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, where extremely long lines had formed.
George Washington University student Haley Ohlund, who was traveling in Copenhagen, told USA Today that she booked a return flight at 11:00 a.m. local time on Thursday after hearing the news. The trip was just $340 when she started the booking process, but by the time she was able to finish the reservation, it was $1,500 to get to Pittsburgh. Some others, such as Raquel Guarino, a master’s student at University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy, told the paper they had given up on the possibility of reaching home anytime soon.
“If I decided to go to home, I looked it up and with flights being canceled, I’d need to pass through at least three international airports crowded with people from all over Europe,” Guarino told USA Today. “Considering one of the advisories is to avoid crowded areas, trying to get home when thousands of others are doing the same seems illogical.”
Delta announced flight change fee waivers on Wednesday, while American Airlines imposed price caps on flights to the U.S. from Europe on Thursday as costs soared, according to NBC. Per USA Today, flight prices from Paris to New York on United Airlines ranged from $2,400 to $5,700, while the same leg via American cost $2,000 to $7,300. Delta’s site listed prices of $2,200 to $5,900.
There’s not currently any reason to believe Trump’s travel suspensions will result in any kind of improvement to the domestic outbreak situation. At least 1,200 cases and dozens of deaths have been reported across 44 states and Washington, DC, meaning the coronavirus is well beyond the point where international travel restrictions could curb its spread. His address was partially written by Stephen Miller, a White House aide with ties to white nationalist ideologies, and was heavy on xenophobia (such as referring to the virus as “foreign”).
Together with the fact that the Schengen Area at large doesn’t seem to be a logical group of countries to ban travel from, that suggests the White House was more interested in trying to look tough with a surprise unprecedented move and trying to paint the ongoing health crisis as the fault of open borders. They’ve succeeded on at least the first front, though whether they deliberately intended to create this much chaos is anyone’s guess. U.S. markets have dived so dramatically that trading was suspended at the New York Stock Exchange on Thursday.
“The Coronavirus is a global crisis, not limited to any continent and it requires cooperation rather than unilateral action,” the European Union wrote in an exasperated statement, per the Washington Post. “The European Union disapproves of the fact that the U.S. decision to impose a travel ban was taken unilaterally and without consultation.”
“Trump needed a narrative to exonerate his administration from any responsibility in the crisis,” former French ambassador to the U.S. Gérard Araud tweeted. “The foreigner is always a good scapegoat. The Chinese has already been used. So, let’s take the European, not any Europe, the EU-one.”