United Airlines Refused To Transport 135 Cruise Passengers To Sydney On Friday Night

One hundred and thirty five Holland America cruise ship passengers were turned away by United Airlines on Friday night after cabin crew refused to work a flight to Sydney if they were allowed on board.

This isn’t the first time in recent weeks that flight crew have refused a trip over coronavirus fears. On March 1, before the spread of the novel coronavirus had really hit the U.S. the way that it has now, American Airlines crew refused to fly to Milan and the airline had to cancel the flight.

This situation was different. United Airlines crew refused to fly to Sydney, not because New South Wales, Australia is more of a hot spot than San Francisco where the flight was departing, but because of the Australian passengers who were ticketed to be on board.

On March 17, the CDC recommended against all cruising, worldwide. They also recommended any getting off of a cruise to quarantine for 14 days. While the CDC has performed poorly in the current crisis, that advice is strong enough that as cabin crew on the flight I wouldn’t want to take the trip with 135 cruise passengers either.

The Zaandam was scheduled to end its 14 day journey in Chile, but was turned away on March 21. It has been at sea ever since (and originally was set to arrive in Fort Lauderdale a week from now). Four passengers died on the Zaandam, and at least 250 had flu-like symptoms.

Passengers of the Zaandam and the Rotterdam (which had been sent as a rescue ship for Zaandam passengers) who were not showing symptoms took charter flights from Fort Lauderdale to Atlanta, San Francisco, Toronto, Paris, Frankfurt, and London. These 135 passengers were continuing on from San Francisco to Sydney.

There were passengers who remained on the ship, however, in isolation due to their symptoms while others still were medically evacuated due to the seriousness of their cases.

Several things are striking about the refusal of transportation though:

  • United found hotel rooms for these 135 passengers. Hotels are empty, but I wonder if the hotels were informed that they had come off of cruise ships?

  • Where was the breakdown when these flight arrangements were made? If the cruise ship was paying for the flights, someone at United should have raised a flag. They should have made special arrangements and worked with crew in advance. This shouldn’t have been a surprise at the airport.

  • And if the concern that led to bumping the passengers was that some might have COVID-19, why were they all lined up in close proximity to each other?

I feel badly for the passengers, stuck at sea for so long. I wouldn’t have embarked on a cruise ship on March 7 but another cruise line is said to have explicitly misled customers about the risk of the virus.

Nonetheless, their condition should not have been a last minute surprise for United Airlines employees. Passengers not showing signs of the virus are not virus-free passengers.

How’d you like to show up to work and not have a chance to work through risks or procedures associated with your shift?

(HT: chipmaster)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. What would have made more sense to me is to have all the cruise passengers quarantined in a Ft Lauderdale hotel for 14 days before flying them back home.

  2. Just read an article if Australian citizens are returning home – they quarantine them in hotel once they arrive. If there own government is unsure of their past activities, why shouldn’t the airline carrying them?

  3. CDC dropped the ball on this one. It should have isolated the passengers for 14 days on arrival. It has been utterly incompetent in screening incoming passengers.

  4. Ideally, when the hell of the Wuhan Virus is behind us, we can emerge ourselves in the numerous impending 911-type reviews.

    Until then, with all of our many health related agencies, they need to learn to speak with a solitary voice vs. back and forth re masks, etc. We need cogent directions and policies re transportation, such as:
    -Anybody taking a cruise after February should be required to see a psychiatrist.
    -As the airlines don’t seem to give a hoot re inflight crews, than the feds should be explicit-you come off a cruise where others have taken sick or died, you are in quarantine not 14, but 21 days-at your expense (as you knew very well of the dangers.) Medical certificates should be issued to authorize health conditions and validated by airline.
    -Time for Uncle Sam to inform the cruise industry that those lines that manipulated the truth will indeed be prosecuted in federal court (hello Norwegian American). Also, if any line has its ships registered out side the USA to avoid taxes, they will not receive 1 dime for relief from the taxpayers. If they re-register here and pay taxes, they will receive relief, provided their is an iron strong warrant that prevents them just going back to Panama, Liberia, etc when the China Virus is over.

  5. Cruise lines have caused so many problems, and pax must have known the risks when boarding. 10% of the illness in Australia comes from the boats. Quarantine them in hotel rooms at their own expense in the USA before testing them don’t allow them to travel and expose potential illness to other pax or other Australians. Then make the cruise line charter another special quarantine plane to get them to Australia.Then quarantine them in Australia again in line with local guidelines, no exceptions for 14 days. Tough love needed to keep us all safe.

  6. A cruise line can’t have “explicitly mislead customers about the risks of the virus.” Anyone with a sound mind knows cruise ships are breeding grounds for pathogens. By mid February it was clear it was not wise to travel if not necessary. I get emails from Kenyan princes everyday but I wouldn’t say they are misleading me because of what they tell me.

    President Trump was early to shut travel from China and unfortunately many European countries were not and that is why NYC has become the biggest cluster. Looking at the death rates it really is a NY/NJ Coronavirus disaster with most other states being in much better shape. NY has 10 times the number of deaths as California. If people weren’t foolish enough to cruise and weren’t foolish enough to travel to and from Europe in mid February, NY would be much less affected. Now people from NY are spreading the virus to other parts of the country out of selfishness instead of staying put. I’m here in NYC and I’m not leaving until next year. Anyone who travels in 2020 for vacation is asking for trouble.

  7. Agree with @David, although the 10% he mentions is now out of date. It is much higher.

  8. @Mark
    Stopped reading your xenophobic rant at “Wuhan”
    Your types are the real scourge of this nation.

  9. The CDC warning regarding Cruises came on March 17th. These passengers departed on their cruise on March 7th. Yet you write as if they, “should have known better.” C’mon, Gary, be a little more empathetic. While the situation was difficult you are leaning into the schtick that these people are not victims but rather the cause of the problem. I’m not saying the United F/A’s are being self entitled a-holes. But, yeah, there should have been better planning and arrangements for them knowing full well that this would become an issue. That is not the passengers fault. They just want to get home.

  10. Absolutely false information. United delayed the flight to the next day to accommodate an additional 80 passengers coming off another cruise ship so they would be able to get home to Australia as well. Do better research next time.

  11. @stuart. You’re quite obtuse to think that these passengers had no idea this was going to happen. Grand Princess was quarantined off of Yokohama on Feb 3rd, more than a month before they got on board. Besides, they’re Australians, they don’t care about the CDC. you probably have never lived abroad and don’t know that each country has their Own agency ‍♂️

  12. Those who got off the Diamond Princess after 14 days of quarantine were required to quarantine again for 14 days in Japan before they would be allowed to fly. CDC put their passports on a no fly list and required the people to send body temperature twice a day for two weeks before they would be cleared.

    The same situation would happen here – quarantine the passengers for at least 14 days at a quarantine facility before they are allowed to fly.

  13. Nitpicking over a few days is futile @Stuart. Any sensible person should have cancelled their cruise long before that. How often have you heard of stomach bugs and the like ripping through a cruise liner in normal times? Plenty! What make you think that a coronavirus won’t do that?
    Why do I think Darwin’s survival of the fittest (or least stupid) theory is playing out here?

  14. Who says 14 days is enough for a successful quarantine. Quarantine them for 30 days and be super careful. Also this 6 ft social distancing is a joke. Gives people a false sense of safety. I might sound like some crackpot but do you really trust government health officials and politicians with your life?

    But then they are in Florida with a crackpot Governor.

  15. @Pete “Wuhan Virus” is not xenophobic. It’s identifying the source of a pandemic as in the past. This virus was borne in Wuhan China. Wuhan China, Wuhan China.

    Bring it up again if you’d like more air time.

  16. We departed the US for a Med cruise on March 7. We wanted to cancel but the cruise line MSC, would not allow it. Penalty would be the cost of cruise. Our trip insurance does not cover pandemics. So we went under the assumption that we would wear masks and constantly clean our hands. On March 10, MSC allowed passengers to cancel, but we were already in Barcelona. On March 12, we boarded the MSC Grandiosa. We were on-board for only 3 hours. We were ordered to dis-embark because Spain was closing all of its ports. The ship would not be allowed to return to Barcelona, Spain. We went back to our hotel and started working on getting return flights. Airlines were impossible to reach. We eventually we able to purchase new flights home. When we landed in ORD on March 15, the CDC met us. They took temps and told us to self-quarantine for 14 days. My in-laws arrived at EWR on March 14, and they had no one met them. All of our flights were packed, almost exclusively with Americans.

    The arrogance and ignorance of people commenting is appalling. I am guessing that most of you have never been on a cruise and have no idea what you are talking about. The only 2 ships that had mandated government quarantines are the Diamond Princess and Golden Princess. All of the other cruise ships (almost 100 ships) and all of the arriving flights, NO ONE was put in government quarantine.

    Elected officials are on massive power trips, in so over their heads, that bad decisions are being bad everywhere. But blaming travelers for taking a cruise almost a month ago, IS JUST PLAIN WRONG!

  17. @JohnB. +1.

    Further, have a heart. To err is human. Show a little forgiveness. If they got on a cruise ship that they most likely paid for in 2019, before anyone ever heard of coronavirus, they still deserve to go home, after a proper quarantining.

  18. @OtherJustSaying~ What rubbish! If you boarded a ship knowing what was going on elsewhere, who would (other than you) risk their life for the sake of saving paid money, which you may get back anyway?
    Ask the passengers of the Ruby Princess currently moored off the Australian coast what they think of your post. Course you wont be able to ask the dead ones or the hundreds critically ill with Covid-19.
    As of today a criminal investigation had been launched by the Government which will be explosive. “….. have a heart, To err is human. Show a little forgiveness.” and other homilies and platitudes will go down the toilet on Day 1.

  19. @Pete It originated in Wuhan, so calling it the Wuhan virus is not only accurate, but appropriate. Not everything in life is racist, so constantly throwing that flag seems very disengenuious.

  20. John B ,
    Seriously ,
    if you knew there was a huge epidemic and your insurance would not cover you, what were you thinking ? Doesn’t matter if you are a billion miller or 1st time traveler. What’s more important, your life or losing some hard earned cash? You don’t have to Einstein to work that out?
    Millions of us lost money by making the only decision we could, don’t travel, don’t risk our health and lives and stay home. Too many people and families have lost their loved ones because people travelled when they shouldn’t have or travelled when they were sick and just did not care about anyone else but themselves. Be happy that you are safe and well.

  21. Sydney police have launched a homicide investigation into the deaths of 10 passengers from a cruise ship. It has been a major scandal in Australia. The suggestion appears to be that the owners knew there were infected passengers onboard, but may have kept it quiet prior to being allowed to dock in Sydney. It’s going to get really ugly.

  22. so after the half ass social distancing reduces the peak to a lower level, maybe 3% will be maybe “immune”.. then the country will open back up…

    will the US blame the second wave on “foreigners” like CCP has blamed the second wave on?

    will the US re-close the economy when the second wave comes?

    will better treatments, testing and equipments be available in time?

    will these outbreaks just come and go and come and go?

    are survivors immune?

    are there multiple strains?

    if yes, and if immunity actually happens, can you be immune to one strain but not otherS?

  23. Looks like a special United charter flight will leave Sunday with all the Australian passengers from the 2 ships:


    They will be quarantined for 2 weeks in hotels in Sydney, and if passengers live in other states, will potentially have to self isolate for another 14 days when they get back to their homes.

    I’ve read that a lot of people who were scheduled to take cruises in late February/early March wanted to cancel, but the cruise lines wouldn’t provide refunds. For many people they couldn’t just wave thousands of $ goodbye, especially if they have saved for many years for their trips. There are lots of questions to be asked of the cruise industry.

  24. Wuhan Virus is not an official name, and I’m not sure exactly what name would have been chosen had WHO not been totally in the tank for China (https://twitter.com/garyleff/status/1244580189469884417) but there we are.

    It’s certainly true that Ebola was named for the Ebola river near one of the first cases, Zika for the ZIka forest near Entebbe where it was first identified.

    However I do wonder the motivations of those who want to offer revisionist names for the virus, what’s the goal of naming it for a place in China versus using a more scientific name?

    In any case, while the Chinese government obfuscated for quite some time over human-to-human transmission and the number of deaths are likely undercounted there by an order of magnitude, the U.S. still had a huge head start in preparation that was squandered by the CDC and FDA – our current situation can’t really be placed at the feet of the Chinese government given the intervening failures of our own government.

  25. Do any passengers show CoVid-19 test results after coming off the ship? If not, I wouldn’t want to sit in that flight. United San Francisco to Sydney is a daily flight. I don’t think the same passengers will have any luck getting on the flight anytime soon unless tested negative. Flight crew cannot be wearing hazmat suit for a 15 hour flight. Prayers for the passengers, hope it gets resolved.

  26. Does anyone know the flight number that was cancelled Friday night? We were supposed to be on a flight to Australia but we cancelled.

  27. Viruses and outbreaks of this kind usually end up with a name where they originate. Nothing racist about it. If you made it, you wear it!

  28. @asdfasd . Like flu viruses which circulate each year, this one may mutate, needing a modified vaccine each year. Being so new that is not known right now. Also immunity to anything has a shelf life, like just 4 months or so for flu viruses to 5 years or more following a pneumococcal vaccination.

  29. @glenn t @colleen @Paulz So are we finally giving the most deadly pandemic of the last century the well deserved name “Kansas flu”?

  30. @asdfasd:
    – the US will always blame “foreigners” (or maybe Hillary)
    – not sure what they will do when the second wave comes, but I guess they have to lock down again (they will do it too late again)
    – better testing and more equipment will be available, treatments might be and vaccines will take time
    – we might have to live with the possibility that this might happen again (although probably not with this virus) that’s why I think the current situation will change international travel forever
    – tests indicate that survivors of the infection are immune and will be for quite a while
    – there are different strains, but immunization (after infection or with a vaccine) will most likely be valid for all strains. Generally coronaviruses are not as prone to mutations as influenza-viruses for example

  31. @CoolHandLuke. A little bit mean spirited there.

    BTW. Just what are you doing with your “Hands” that make them so “Cool”. Inquiring minds want to know. On the other hand, maybe I would rather not know.

  32. @Keith First of all, I live half time between Brazil and the U.S. as most people know in the varying blogs I comment in. As well I have lived in varying countries in Europe and for two years in Sapporo. Be careful when you decide to generalize someone by their comment.

    With that, we all assume a healthier level of knowledge regarding the world than Bob and Martha from Adelaide. For them on March 7th most of the attention around the world was focused on Asia and Europe. They most likely, as casual travelers, felt that a cruise in South America was as far as one could get. Further, leadership in many countries, including Australia, had yet to sound significant alarms. All of us may know better under the experiences we have with traveling but that does not give us the right to armchair quarterback Bob and Martha who may not. Even with that, there were a number of bloggers doing mileage runs around that time to Asia because of cheap fares and wide open availability. And bragging about it. Yes, they should have known better.

  33. What I find ironic is essentially United is forcing passengers into this by only refunding tickets through the purchase date. My spouse is an ER nurse in the COVID-19 Louisiana hotbed. She is in intimate contact with COVID-19 positive patients. We were supposed to go to SAN for Easter Break. Typically don’t choose United, but it was much cheaper to go through the Ult Rewards portal. Do we utilize the tickets and put lives at risk or let the tickets expire? Airlines are placing all in peculiar situations. (Yes, I have complained to DOT and have not heard back.)

  34. @Gary – thanks as usual for bringing some fact-based reasoning in to combat the Far Right trolls (sadly) increasingly popping up on your site.

    The Cheeto and his subordinate crony Pompeo have been trying to link China/Wuhan to the virus name in their official communications with other countries (i.e.,the G7 a couple weeks ago), but nobody else has signed up to that. Gee I wonder why…

  35. Not going to read this blog anymore. It’s very easy to put policy in place that you won’t tolerate racist, xenophobic, or hateful comments, and take actions to correct.

  36. @al – on the whole I think people do a great job shaming those they find racist; that people who are actually racists make themselves look like idiots; and that people can have conversations around what is racist and hateful – and that it is not “very easy” as you say to simply take action against.

    You’ll see that I’ve commented on the motives of those who seek to rename the virus.

  37. The people who use the term racism and racist are often the biggest bigots who believe every group in the world is entitled to pride, protection, their own countries and insular communities but whites are not. They can’t dispute statements like the Coronavirus originated in Wuhan China probably from bats which some Chinese people eat from street markets so they claim racism when anyone says fact. No one complains when people call the Spanish Flu the Spanish Flu.

    Anyone defending China is really defending anti white racism and Chinese supremacy. It’s clear that the motives of these people are to hide the dangers of globalism, the dangers of a foreign supply chain and the danger of people waking up to China’s negative influence.

  38. @David

    At our departure, the virus was only raging in the Lombardy region of Italy. We were not going to that area.The first confirmed case in Spain, wasn’t even documented yet. We have N95 masks, plenty of hand gel and wipes. Our small group was not doing tours with other people. MSC was insisting that there had been no cases on any of their ships.

    Our trip insurance would not cover the cancellation, but all of the other benefits stay in effect. In retrospect, I will now purchase “cancel for any reason” trip insurance. Because that is the only type of coverage that covers pandemics.

    Covid-19 wasn’t declared a pandemic until March 10. Trump made his wildly inaccurate speech on March 11. We had been in Barcelona since March 8th. It is real easy to make judgement with current information. But that information wasn’t available on March 7th, when we departed. The CDC order to avoid cruise travel was made on March 17th. We returned to the US on March 15th. The Trump administration has not been pro-active in doing anything with Covid-19. Everyone was stating that it isn’t worse than the common flu. I didn’t believe those statements. But, still in the US, the hotspots are big cities.

    We were not the only Americans travelling. There were over 250K Americans, overseas on March 12th. There are still Americans overseas. You make it sound like I’m an idiot. Obviously I have a lot of company, in a country lead by an idiot!

  39. Sadly this website is totally false and twists the narratives. The specific crew of this flight refused to work it, I don’t blame them! If I was going to work the flight and found out that all these passengers had been on the cruise where there were symptoms and deaths reported absolutely I would refuse. It’s easy to point the finger when your job is to sit behind a computer and type this crap. Those cruise passengers should have self quarantined in a hotel in SFO before proceeding.

    And then you say “these people had no symptoms “.. well this virus can be asymptomatic but contagious! Even New York has come out today saying 50% of their positive covid cases were symptomatic.

    This website has ZERO integrity and is only click bait.

  40. @LR – before saying what I’ve written is “totally false” and have “zero integrity” I wonder whether you actually read what I wrote because I make the point about aymptomatic spread, that the CDC guielines had been for quarantine on arrival, and suggested I don’t blame the flight crew, in other words the important points you say I somehow missed?

  41. Does anyone know how the Zaandam pax got to SFO? Was that a charter flight (given how much traffic there is these days, maybe it doesn’t even matter).
    In a perfect world, every one of those cruise passengers should have been given that new Abbott 15-minute ID NOW corona screen before getting off the ship. But since the test only got to market this week, I suppose they couldn’t get their hands on enough test kits. I just hope reasonable precautions are being taken in California before these folks fly home to Australia. BTW, it is always interesting how these micro-crises are handled: it always seems like the authorities (everywhere in the world) could do a little better. Like there isn’t enough brainpower available.

  42. Your heading is inflammatory and misleading. This is not an issue of UA “refusing” to help. Many passengers were coughing and unwell while waiting for the flight. Doctors denied their boarding because they were unfit to travel. UA eventually cancelled the flight and separately prepared a charter for the HAL pax out of safety for everyone – HAL pax, regular pax and crew.
    And to Ms Renae – people are trying to help you. We are trying to help you home. Please don’t complain about closed restaurants when the fact is all of California is under shelter in place and no indoor dining is allowed. You have been housed and fed and flown home. Be cognizant that others have had to make compromises and sacrifices around you.

  43. As a Flight Attendant, myself, I may be faced with making a decision whether or not to work a flight. I would have serious reservations against working one in which: 1) There is’nt adequate spacing between passengers, 2) Those who Appear ill (showing signs) don’t have masks on the whole flight (ideally, All pax should have them on, right now) and 3) I don’t have proper protective geat onboard.

  44. Those jackass who got off the cruise ship should be thankful to US for being allowed to dock.
    I thought their government or Carnival arranged for a chartered flight.
    But WOW, another show of incompetence at every level of government.
    BTW, WHO stands for Wuhan Health Organization.

  45. Your headline is very misleading & inflammatory!! Would you want to be(as passenger or crew) on an airplane w/135 people who were on a cruise ship where 4 people died from the virus??!! It’s a 14+hour flight!! To be confined that long on an aircraft w/ignorant people who took a cruise in the midst of this world crisis is a “no-brainer”!!!! And for them to complain that United didnt put them in a hotel with a restaurant??!!!! Really??!! San Francisco has been on “shut-down”(shelter-in-place) for 2 wks already!!!! Those people are oblivious, selfish & irresponsible for taking a cruise in the first place!!!! They’re lucky there was an open hotel that would even take them!! Hope they are quarantined in their rooms!!

  46. @JohnB and all those who chose to set sail because they did not want to lose their cruise fares, due to the greedy cruiselines would not allow them refund (before CDC’s travel advice),

    You guys put the $ ahead of your own health / lives, to still get on your cruises because you cannot get back your $ – that is after what happened to Diamond Princess in Feb… Unless you are living under a stone, surely you KNEW what might be ahead of your cruise. Yet you chose to gamble, and now blaming others here being appalling? I would say, the STUPIDITY of these passengers are the most appalling, after the greedy cruise lines.
    I am saying this as a person has over 40 cruises done over past decade, AND has a canceled Apr 11th cruise because I do not want to risk my health / life for a few thousand $. Or, put that bluntly, I am not THAT STUPID, and certainly not have the audacity to blame others for the mistake.

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