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United Airlines suspends regular air service to Marshall Islands

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MAJURO — Within hours of Marshall Islands authorities refusing to accommodate passengers and crew inside the airport terminal in Majuro when a regular United Airlines flight developed mechanical problems forcing it to halt onward service to Honolulu, United informed Majuro officials that it was suspending regular air service to the country for the next three-and-a-half-weeks.

When Wednesday night’s “Island Hopper” service from Guam to Honolulu was forced to terminate in Majuro because of mechanical problems, government authorities refused United’s request to accommodate the 124 passengers and crew members inside the departure lounge of the terminal because the country has been under a government ban on incoming air arrivals since March 8 to prevent spread of the coronavirus Covid-19.

The Marshall Islands is among a dwindling number of countries that have no confirmed cases of Covid-19 despite the rapidly spreading global pandemic.

Dan Weiss, United’s managing director for Global Government and Regulatory Affairs, informed Marshall Islands authorities by email on Thursday that a “makeup” flight Friday would be the last scheduled air service until a roundtrip flight April 13-14 connecting Majuro and Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands with the outside world. No other flights are currently scheduled in April.

United is the only international air carrier servicing this western Pacific nation. The suspension of service to the Marshall Islands will also impact Kosrae in the Federated States of Micronesia, leaving that island without air service until April 13.

“The recent incident with the United Airlines was very unfortunate for all concerned given the state of emergency we are confronting in our effort to prevent spreading of Covid-19 virus,” said Foreign Minister Casten Nemra Friday. “The Marshall Islands government is in dialogue with United management to secure amicable arrangement should similar incident occur. It is the desire of the Marshall Islands government to work in partnership with United Airlines to ensure these essential flights continue while safeguarding our residents.”

Earlier in the day of the grounding of United’s Boeing 737 in Majuro, the airline had publicly announced it was reducing the four weekly roundtrip Island Hopper flights to one roundtrip per week starting March 23 because of the “significant impact” the coronavirus is having on the airline industry.

Passengers and crew leave a grounded United Airlines plane, right, after sleeping on the plane to board a “rescue” flight brought in by United March 19 at Amata Kabua International Airport in Majuro. Subsequently, United suspended regular service to the Marshall Islands.  Photo by Giff Johnson

After the flight was grounded in Majuro Wednesday night, passengers were required to stay in or on the tarmac within the vicinity of the airplane, and slept on board before a rescue flight arrived Thursday morning to transport them to Honolulu.

Weiss, in a March 19 email to Marshall Islands Health Secretary Jack Niedenthal, said the airline had “respectfully sought assistance” from the government to deplane the passengers to avoid staying on the plane for many hours, but was denied.

“United has the upmost concern for community health, and we do not aim to cause the Marshall Islands government additional worry,” Weiss said. “It has become apparent that our services present too much risk for the Marshall Islands government and our policy and procedures which must accommodate unforeseen mechanical challenges do not fit within the Marshall Islands’ coronavirus mitigation plans.” Weiss said it was unacceptable to the airline that its passengers and crew were “not being provided airport shelter during an irregular event.”

“The Marshall Islands should not be punished for trying to protect its population, and passengers boarding a plane during a worldwide pandemic (should) understand that it is no longer ‘business as usual,’” said Niedenthal in a reply, requesting United to reinstate the once-a-week service as previously announced.

Niedenthal said government officials involved in implementing the government’s current Covid-19 travel ban were at the airport Wednesday night and “agonized” for several hours over the airline’s request for bringing passengers into the air terminal. “We determined that we could not allow United passengers off the flight since it originated in Guam which has an increasing Covid-19 (infected) population,” said Niedenthal. “We could not allow the passengers to use our lounge facilities and bathrooms for 10 hours until the rescue flight arrived (because of concern for virus spread to people using the terminal facilities after the group departed).”

Niedenthal compared the action of the Marshall Islands enforcing its ban on incoming arrivals with that of Honolulu, which earlier this week refused to allow passengers or crew to get off two cruise ships while they refueled and resupplied because of the threat of Covid-19 spread.

“Our decision to protect our population…is no different than Honolulu’s decision to protect its population even though neither of the ships had any confirmed cases (of Covid-19),” he said.

As it stands, the next international air service to the country will be April 13 from Honolulu.


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