“No one at [Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport] was ready for this,” Robbie Terry said. Least of all the airlines.
Robbie and his wife, Molly Terry, are Lakewood residents who returned from southern Italy last week. On Thursday, March 12, to be specific. Their story gives new meaning to the phrase “timing is everything.”
The Terrys are not alone. They were caught in the domino effect that happens when the delivery of information fails and there is a lack of leadership on every level. Their story is one that has been repeated around the world, unfortunately. But, let’s see what we can learn from Robbie and Molly’s not-so-excellent adventure returning from Italy,
Should We Stay Or Should We Go?
The Terrys are far from novice travelers. They are careful and responsible people. When an opportunity arose to see the famous Strade Bianche bicycle race in Sienna, the cycle enthusiasts booked a flight to meet up with friends for a few days in southern Italy.
The coronavirus had appeared in northern Italy and by the end of February was making news. The Terrys thought about canceling their trip. When they called American Airlines they were told if the plane was leaving their tickets were not refundable, and the plane was indeed leaving.
“I believe on the day we were leaving, March 3rd, there was a level 3 travel advisory,” Molly said. “It went to level 4 for northern Italy overnight. We called American Airlines and were told this level was not in their information system — despite it being in the CDC system. The message was clear and it was ‘Go, or lose your money.’ We thought, ‘OK, we are going to the south, it’s only for a week, our friends are already there, they say everything is fine,’ so we went.”
The Terrys arrived on March 4, spent the night and headed south.
Everything Was Normal Until It Wasn’t
“We left for Sienna on March 5th to stay with our friends in their apartment,” Molly said. “It felt like a normal situation. The stores and restaurants were open. People were sitting in all the outdoor piazzas. Life was moving along very normally.”
Then the bike race was canceled two days before it was to take place.
The first real seeds of worry were sown during lunch with friends from an Italian class. One of the students was from Seattle and had learned the coronavirus was hitting the area. She was wondering about going home as were the other students.
“We booked the trip through Expedia, ” Molly said. “So we just kept in touch with them to see if we would leave on time. There seemed to be no worry.”
The Terrys headed back to Rome on Sunday, March 9, via bus and noticed there were only eight people on it, and everyone was spread out. They arrived at noon planning to see a few sights. Then they found the outdoor attractions like the Coliseum and Forum were closed and fenced off.
The next morning they took the high-speed train to Salerno on their way to Amalfi.
“It was not crowded at all,” Molly said. “When we got off the train, it felt like something big was going on. There were men in hazmat suits looking for something or someone. Robbie figured it out. There was a train from Milan that had connected with theirs at a stop in Napoli. They were looking for those passengers. Other than that, however, it was business as usual around us.”
When they got back to Rome they made a quick trip to the local market for wine and food, took plenty of photos and enjoyed the evening. On March 10 they got up late, had coffee, and were preparing for a last leisurely day in Rome when the phone alert came in.
Scrambling To Get Out Of Italy
“About 10 AM we see a message that our flight has been canceled,” Molly said.”We called Expedia and they told us we’d have to pay in advance for any changes and work out later if there would be a refund. We called American Airlines because our British Airways flight was booked through them as a partner airline. They said they could give us a direct flight — for $3,400! American Airlines should have helped us and they did not.”
The scrambling began. Molly called the U.S. Embassy who told her flights were being canceled because they were not full. That may well have been because of the Italian Prime Minister issuing a quarantine of the entire country, 60 million people, that same day. Italians had to stay put. The Terrys even called the local NBC affiliate back home. They agreed to be interviewed hoping to alert people to the new reality.
When Molly was on the line to Expedia, Robbie started looking at flights. He found one to Brussels on Alitalia and booked it so they could at least get to London and catch their original connection to Dallas on time.
“Our entire last day was spent trying to figure a way out,” Molly said. “But we were back on track. We would still make our flight to London.”
Then Alitalia canceled.
Robbie found a flight out of Rome on Brussels Airlines that would get them to Brussels and then London. “When we got to Leonardo da Vinci airport in Rome, it was not crowded and no one was in a panic,” Molly said. “We were expecting chaos, but it was not and our flight was not crowded.”
They arrived in London late at night. There were few people around, just a couple of screeners making jokes about how slow it was. When you have to stay late at night at Heathrow airport, you are led to a secure area where you can rest. The Terrys tried to do just that for a few hours. They were roused at 5 a.m. by airport officials who led everyone to the main terminal to find their gate numbers.
“Our American Airlines flight to Dallas was scheduled for around 8 a.m., ” Molly said. “We’d been told it was half full so would definitely leave. By the time we got to the terminal area, it was packed. President Trump had made a speech about 3 a.m. London time, while we were all asleep. It was chaos. When we boarded a flight attendant said ‘You can thank Trump for being packed in like sardines.’ All the flight attendants told us how horrible it was, that there was no guidance from the government, the airline, no plans in place at all. That speech created panic. Americans thought they couldn’t get home. Our flight went to full capacity, over 300 people. When you are dealing with the threat of a virus and being told not to gather in groups of 200 or more, why on earth pack a place to maximum capacity? It makes no sense.”
But the Terrys were on their way home.
Lack of Coronavirus Screening at Airport
Then came the real shock. “They did not screen anyone at D/FW,” Robbie said. “Our friends came back through Newark and were also not screened. Molly went through the automated customs with no questions asked, no mention of the coronavirus, no heat scans, nothing.”
“Trump was lying about the screening of all passengers that came in on the planes that day,” Molly said. “No one was screened.”
Robbie has Global Entry, but was flagged.
“The customs agent asked where I’d flown in from. I told him and he asked if I’d been to northern Italy. I said now, but on the final day we were there, all of Italy had been put under quarantine. He waved me through.
“Our country has a plan for pandemics,” Robbie said. “We just aren’t following it. The rest of the world looks to the United States for leadership and we have none right now.
Self Isolating Out of Caution
The Terrys self-isolated at home immediately upon their return. They called the doctor’s office wondering if they should get tested only to be told there were no tests and if they showed symptoms to go to the ER.
“And potentially spread the coronavirus — that’s nuts, “Molly said.
The best advice the Terrys have from their adventure is to always rely on yourself. Be prudent, don’t panic, and have a plan.
“I’m an eternal optimist,” Robbie said. “We went because we thought it would work out. In retrospect, if American had offered a voucher good for a year we probably would have canceled. They made it very difficult and very expensive to change plans.”
“We don’t regret making the decision to go,” Molly said. “We were aware there was some risk but no one could have imagined it would unfold this way.”
Timing is everything.