On January 13th, 2010, Jillian and I spent most of the day in the US embassy in Port-au-Prince, Haiti waiting for a chance to evacuate after the earthquake had just left the capital city in ruins. Jillian and her co-worker, Chuck, had been injured after being trapped in the rubble of our house for 10 hours, and we decided that the best decision was to leave the country and seek medical attention. We sat in the lobby of the embassy for hours, not knowing whether a flight would be leaving that day or not, but in the meantime we filled out some paperwork that the embassy workers had told us was necessary if we wanted the chance to be evacuated.
“This is a promissory note,” yelled one embassy worker as a crowd of people huddled around him anxiously listening to his every word, “If, or when, you are evacuated out you will have to pay for your flight. The cost will be nearly equivalent to what you would pay for a commercial flight, and we will send you the bill later.” We ran to the window where the papers were being dispersed and quickly filled them out, hoping that if we submitted ours first we would have a better chance of getting on the first flight.
While the idea that we were paying for the flight was slightly jarring, we weighed our options and decided that getting out and getting to a hospital was priority number one. I filled out Chuck’s paperwork (as his injuries were too severe for him to do it), and Jillian filled out ours, we signed on the dotted lines and turned it in. The flight manifest for the first evacuation flight out of Haiti was called without us on it, and after pleading with the embassy workers, Jillian, Chuck and I were added to the list and flew out on a Coast Guard plane that evening on our way to the Dominican Republic. Later, in Santo Domingo, a US embassy worker there assured us that the flight, as well as Chuck and Jillian’s medical bills, would likely be covered by the US government, included in their emergency response to the earthquake. Turns out that was only half-true…
While at home for Christmas my Dad handed me a pile of mail that had been accumulating at his house, which we use as our permanent mailing address in the States. Among the pile was a letter from the US State Department, which I opened the day after Christmas. The letter was the opposite of a Christmas miracle:
Dear JILLIAN P THORP,
The Promissory Note, which you signed for the above amount, is due by the listed due date.
If remittance is not received on or before the above due date, late payment interest is charged from the date notice of the debt was mailed through the date of payment at the above listed rate on the amount due, or the unpaid balance when partial payments are made.
The charge for a one-way flight from PAP to Santo Domingo for Jillian and I: $1,682.22!!!
We were shocked for about a dozen reasons, but first and foremost because we were not expecting to see this bill. Secondly, the charge was astronomical for what translated into a 45 minute flight ($841.11 each). While I’m not an expert in the airline industry, I’m pretty sure $800 is not the going rate for a one way flight to Santo Domingo. In fact, let’s take a gander at how much it really is (courtesy of Travelocity.com):
That’s right! We could have saved a whopping $782.11 EACH if we would have flown with American Airlines. Now, I totally understand that AA was not operating out of Haiti in the weeks after the earthquake, and that because of the circumstances the only way to fly out was through the US military, but still, $841.11 is not “nearly equivalent” to $59. But I wasn’t an Econ major in college, so maybe I’m wrong…
We decided to delve further into the cost comparison game, and found other great deals in which we could have taken advantage of with that kind of money:
We could have flown home, one-way directly to DC, almost five times! This is fun, let’s continue:
While I joke, it’s slightly crazy, if not depressing, to see how ridiculous the cost of this evacuation flight was. And again, I completely understand that mobilizing the military and using them to operate the flight costs an enormous amount of money. I also understand that you have to threaten to charge people so that they don’t just use it as a free ticket out of a disaster area that you no longer want to be in (there were dozens of people on that flight who were not injured at all, and just wanted to go home). But the fact that the doctor at the embassy was only seeing the worst of the worst patients, and that the staff at the embassy would not give Chuck or Jillian so much as an aspirin until we found someone who snuck us one, makes me feel that this was different. We needed to get out, and we relied on our government to help us do that. Isn’t that why we pay taxes?!
Unfortunately, I think we have no other option but to pay it. The bill was already past due when I opened the letter after Christmas, and now it’s getting to the point where we just want this whole thing behind us. Not to mention, they don’t really give you a number to call to ask them what the deal is. “Mrs. Clinton, I’m confused…” I don’t think so.
The reality is that Jillian and I are eternally grateful for the service we were provided that day. While the embassy in PAP was a mess (and rightfully so), when we got off that plane in Santo Domingo it was like heaven. They sat us down in the hangar of the airport, asked us if we wanted something to eat or drink, and let us use their phones to call our family members to tell them we were OK. It was wonderful for so many reasons, it’s just a pity that, in the end, it leaves such a bitter taste in our mouths.