Like thousands of other American tourists in Mexico’s hurricane-devastated Los Cabos, Joe Glass of Dallas lined up for hours Thursday outside the heavily damaged airport to get an emergency flight back to the United States.
But what made Glass really angry wasn’t the chaos or the all-day sweltering wait. It was hearing that U.S. consular officials at the airport were making people sign promissory notes to pay back the federal government $600 each if they flew a U.S-government-chartered plane out of Los Cabos.
“My wife and I got to the airport, there was just one huge line. It took six-and-a-half hours to get from the end of line into the airport building where they were processing people,” said Glass in a phone interview Friday afternoon.
“As we’re getting close to the front, we could see Canadian embassy people who pulled Canadians out of line, took them to the front. Got them on a plane. Somebody from Britain did the same. Then here comes a U.S. Embassy guy. Says we have four flights chartered in conjunction with commercial flights. We’ll take names, we’ll take the first 100 people who sign the $600 promissory note and we’ll get you out of Cabo.”
Glass was mad and wasn’t going to pay, having heard that United Airlines, Alaska Airlines and others were operating relief flights for no extra payment. He and his wife decided to wait for the next commercial-carrier flight since they were close to the front of the line, and got a United Airlines flight to Houston on Thursday evening. “We didn’t pay a dime. And we weren’t even United passengers. We flew down on Spirit Airlines.”
Why do U.S. citizens have to pay if the government evacuates them from overseas disaster sites such as Los Cabos? A U.S. law requires it, mandating payment of the equivalent of a commercial airline coach fare – hence the promissory notes that some travelers encountered in Los Cabos. “A gal we knew from the hotel, she just wanted to get out and so she signed,” said Glass.
The government’s evacuation rules – and fees – are spelled out at the State Department’s website.
Yet commercial carriers such as Seattle-based Alaska Airlines have been airlifting passengers out of Los Cabos this week for no charge after the powerful hurricane struck Sunday night, heavily damaging some hotels, the airport and destroying many homes.
“Alaska Airlines is paying for it. We’re not charging. We’re taking care of our customers, but we’re also taking any passengers who are down there whether they are Alaska’s customers or other airlines’,” said Alaska spokeswoman Bobbie Egan. (Passengers flying to the United States do have to be U.S. citizens.)
Most of Alaska’s flights from Los Cabos have gone to Los Angeles or San Diego. (Mexican authorities closed Los Cabos airport Friday afternoon for repairs, saying all tourists had been evacuated.) Alaska will run some relief flights this weekend to get out travelers who had made their way to Loreto, north of Los Cabos on the Baja California peninsula, after the hurricane, said Egan. Alaska has flown out almost 2,000 people affected by the hurricane.
Meanwhile, tourist Glass is happy to back home in Texas. And very glad that United gave him a free ride.