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Repatriation flight – a crew diary

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After my flight back from New York at the beginning of March I actually thought that due to the current situation and the reduced flight schedule I would not put on my uniform any time soon. But as they say in aviation: “Always expect the unexpected”.

I still had a few days of reserve duty planned and when I logged into the system, I learned that I was going to fly to Bangkok. Considering the circumstances, I had not expected a rotation like this, so I was looking forward to my mission.

It was not long until the next surprise: Crew Control, the department responsible for the crews’ schedules, called and asked me if I agreed to stay an extra night. They were planning a repatriation flight for the Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) from Auckland, New Zealand via Bangkok to Switzerland. Even though the trip to New Zealand was not yet 100% certain, I was of course up for it.

30 March 2020

Our flight was scheduled for 5.55 p.m. While waiting for the final information on whether or not to pack my bags for a night in Auckland, I began to have mixed feelings. On the one hand, positive ones: I might have the privilege to witness such a special rotation – as a SWISS Flight Attendant, I would get to be part of the largest FDFA repatriation operation. Although I would only be a small cog in the wheel, I would still be an essential part of bringing Swiss citizens and people living in Switzerland home from abroad. The thought of this gave me a good feeling.

On the other hand, there were also concerns: Corona is on everyone’s lips. We should protect ourselves and avoid contact. Now that the situation has become increasingly serious, people are not only concerned about their own health, but also about the safety of the ones around them.

At noon, I finally got the call: Together with my crew, I would fly to Bangkok first and then continue on to Auckland. I packed my suitcase and a few hours later, I headed for the airport.

At 4.25 p.m., our crew met for the pre-flight briefing. During those briefings, colleagues often ask if everyone is feeling well and in good shape. Now this question had a completely different meaning. We should really be aware of what could happen on this rotation. We would still have the possibility to opt out, be it for fear of falling ill or for health reasons. However, everyone was healthy and determined to face this challenge together. Our SWISS-spirit makes us strong. 

During the briefing, we discussed that we would definitely be flying to Bangkok, but that it was still unclear whether the onward flight to Auckland would really take place as planned or would be postponed. It was also still unclear whether we would have guests on board from Zurich to Bangkok. We are prepared for everything, that is our motto. Shortly afterwards we were informed that the flight to Bangkok would take place without guests, a so-called ferry flight. I personally had never had this experience before.

Once on board, it felt like the beginning of a normal rotation. Suddenly, however, it occurred to me: When does the passenger boarding begin? – Not at all. We checked our emergency equipment, whether food was loaded and got ready for departure according to standard procedures. Then we took off. Next, we had dinner and organized ourselves into different shifts because we had to check the galleys and toilets regularly for safety reasons after all.

Short visit to the flight deck.
Short visit to the flight deck

31 March 2020

After 10.5 hours, we landed safely in Bangkok. Immigration was not easy. In addition to the normal procedure, we had to have our body temperature measured and fill in a health declaration. The immigration procedure was not surprising because measuring people’s body temperature has become common practice at most airports. The empty airport on the other hand was far more unusual for me. I had already seen an almost empty airport in Newark the week before, but at the airport in Bangkok, it was eerie. Our plane was the only one arriving, all gates and shops closed, only the airport staff was still there.

When we were all on the crew bus, we received the message that our flight to Auckland was confirmed. So the journey should continue. We drove over deserted roads to the crew hotel; the lockdown had definitely reached Thailand.

1 April 2020

On our day off, we enjoyed the hot summer temperatures in Thailand. On the roof of the hotel, we made ourselves comfortable on deck chairs; the pool and the fitness area were closed due to the current situation.

A little later that day we found out that we would not fly to Auckland the next day after all because the flight was postponed by a few days. As there was no flight planned to go back to Zurich the next day either, we would stay in Bangkok for at least two more nights.

The team spirit between the members of our crew was enormous. Everyone agreed that despite the postponed flight we were ready to fly to Auckland, even if the rotation would take longer than originally planned. Of course, everyone was curious about what would happen next and it was challenging to accept the uncertainty. The situation could change by the hour. Today we were told that we were not going to fly to Auckland, but this could change again in just a few hours.

2 April 2020

I wondered what would happen during the day. No one knew. Then a message came from our Commander: Most likely, we would fly home on Sunday morning with a short stopover in Laos and then be back in Switzerland on Sunday evening. A few hours later another message: New Zealand had reopened Auckland airport for repatriation flights (which was in fact the reason for the previous cancellation). Again, it was uncertain whether we could fly to New Zealand as originally planned and thus, we waited for further information from Zurich.

At the end of the day, we learned that the flight to Auckland would take place after all and that we had been cleared to fly to New Zealand. We would fly from Bangkok to Auckland on Saturday, April 4. Everyone in the crew was very happy about this news. Nevertheless, we were still ready for everything, because all our plans could still change in times of Corona.

3 April 2020

We spent another day at the hotel. The lockdown was becoming stricter; from 10 p.m. on, we were not allowed to leave the hotel at all. The only exception was the transfer to the airport.

We were really looking forward to flying to New Zealand the next day. Despite the curfew in Auckland and the fact that we could not leave the hotel and maybe not even the hotel room, we were happy to pick up the stranded Swiss nationals and people living in Switzerland. By now, after so many days together with the crew, we had also grown into a small family. This made it easier for all of us to deal with the uncertainty of the situation.

Finally, we received a message from our Commander: The flight to Auckland had been postponed once again; we would not be flying to New Zealand. Of course, we were a bit disappointed because no SWISS aircraft had never landed in New Zealand before and it would have been a very special flight for everyone. Instead, we were delighted to be presented with another premiere: instead of flying to Auckland, we were expected to fly from Bangkok to Laos on Sunday, April 5, and then from there back to Zurich. This would allow us to take stranded passenger from Bangkok and Laos with us. Of course, we were also looking forward to this flight and enjoyed the second last day of our rotation, which will probably remain the longest one in my career as a flight attendant.

4 April 2020

This was presumably the last day in Bangkok. The flight for the next day was confirmed and as definite as it could be under the circumstances. Once again, we spent the day in the hotel and enjoyed the good food and service one last time. However, we still had doubts as to whether we would really fly through Laos to Zurich the next day.

5 April 2020

As there was no further change of plans, we met at 10.15 a.m. for our transfer to the airport. The whole crew was wearing facemasks. The farewell at the hotel was emotional: Staff told us that we were the last crew to stay at the hotel, future crews would be accommodated in another hotel, located directly at the airport. Hence, it was also a special farewell for the hotel employees. We were the last guests and as we were told that the hotel had to close its doors for some time. Of course, we had to take a farewell photo.

Hotel in Bangkok

Arriving at the airport, we were expected by the staff of the Swiss Embassy. It was an emotional moment, because they were happy that we were there to take tourists from Bangkok back home, we were given a lovely gift of Kägi Fret. The trip to the aircraft was an unforgettable experience as well. The whole airport was deserted, the shops had all been cleared out and everything was covered in plastic. It was a very memorable sight.

Crew shot before departure
Crew shot before departure

On board we had another briefing, divided our crew to the different classes and started to prepare for the flight. The atmosphere amongst the crew was familiar and overall very good. After a few minutes, we were ready for boarding. We expected to have about 320 guests on board, grateful to be able to fly home.

Galley

Boarding went smoothly and shortly afterwards we were ready to take off for Laos. The flight took about 45 minutes and we distributed water and chocolate. Against all expectations, several guests were not quite so happy about their return to Switzerland. Some of them would have liked to stay in Thailand longer, but were sent home by the Thai authorities.

Once in Laos, the plane had to be refuelled and loaded, while new passengers boarded the plane. In the meantime, our plane was admired and photographed by airport staff. I once again became aware of what a special flight this is, as we landed at a destination where no SWISS aircraft had ever been before.

Laos Tarmac
Laos Tarmac

What a beautiful, honourable task this repatriation flight on behalf of the FDFA was, I thought to myself. The joy of the boarding guests was also obvious and many of them thanked us.

It took us 18 hours from our farewell at the Crew Hotel in Bangkok to our arrival at the Operations Center at Zurich Airport. Everyone was exhausted, but still we had a big smile on our faces, thanks to the extraordinary team spirit.

For me it was a very nice, albeit very challenging experience. I am thankful that I could be part of this repatriation flight and I will remember the rotation fondly. Once again, I learned that teamwork is everything.

Text: Eliane Huonder, SWISS Flight Attendant