Flight Protocols

Illustrations by Mark Nerys

Between Japan’s quake and the Mideast’s impromptu makeover, the State Department’s already had to evacuate citizens from six nations this year. (Fleeing is sometimes voluntary for government employees; private citizens can always choose to stay.) The Feds have a playbook for abetting escape from the most uncertain parts of our uncertain world—just don’t expect a free ride.

The Libyan Evacuation by the Numbers

32: Americans who left via charter flight before access to the Tripoli airport became restricted.

183: Number who left via the Maria Dolores ferry, which featured frosted glass, leather seats, and a steel-and-burlwood bar.

18: Height, in feet, of the waves Maria Dolores sailed into.

9: Hours it took to get from Tripoli to Malta, where many passengers were treated for dehydration from seasickness.

The Lingo

“Trip wire”
The event that triggers an evacuation. In Libya, it seems to have been a rambling Seif Qaddafi speech that concluded, “We will fight until the last man, until the last woman, until the last bullet.”

Expats embassies informally rely on to contact other citizens. Officials also keep lists of hotels frequented by Americans.

“Rally point”
What it sounds like. In Libya, it was the seaport in central Tripoli, across the street from a Radisson hotel.

Reasons to Flee

In a 2007 survey, embassy officials named the issues they thought most likely to force them to order evacuations.

26%: General Civil Disorder

81%: Protests and Demonstrations

43%: Avian Flu

6%: Conventional War

8%: Chemical, Biological, Radiological, or Nuclear Threats

47%: Terrorism

21%: Non-Bird-Flu Disease Outbreaks

66%: Natural Disasters

Restrictions May Apply

Travelers must agree in writing to reimburse the State Department at prevailing commercial rates. (It’s the law.) Says Usiel Meraz Cerna, a U.S. citizen and teacher in Libya who was on the ferry out: “We’ve yet to receive the bill and have absolutely no idea how much it might be. We’re actually kind of scared, especially since we’re unemployed because our jobs were in Tripoli.”

Generally limited to one suitcase and a carry-on item.

The State Department typically forbids all but service animals from traveling; Americans on the Tripoli ferry were able to bring their critters but have to submit them to a six-week health quarantine in Malta.

The Way Station

Itinerant foreign-service officers cool their heels at the Oakwood temporary-housing complex outside D.C. The facility’s features include:

• Tennis center
• Sand volleyball

“Relaxation lounge”
• Sunday continental breakfast

Hydro-massage spa
• “A sumptuous night’s sleep to rival any top-of-the-line hotel.”

Flight Protocols