Provided by Tom Ulmet on August 10, 2020.

Welcome back to the start of a new school year! While we were happy to say goodbye to the past year, it appears that this year will start as problematic as the one that just ended. This will require a larger than usual adjustment also on the part of 17 new Heads in our member schools. To those of you who are new in your role, welcome to ACAMIS and welcome to China. Some of you are also stranded abroad and cannot enter China yet. We hope to be of some assistance with those stranded abroad, but the process is very tedious.

The information that follows illustrates the step by step process that lead us to the possibility of Charter Flights so be sure to read all of it to gain overall understanding so you can explain it to others. This message is to prepare you to apply for charter flights through ACAMIS. The actual guidelines and procedures will follow as soon as they are known to us, hopefully within two weeks. Remember, the government goal with all of the procedures is to prevent the virus from being brought back into China. In order to provide understanding of the complex issues, here are a few observations:

Letters of Invitation

  • We have been very busy working through our partners to open the visa system and most schools now report seeing a flow of PU letters of invitation which enables the frantic search for flights to begin.

  • School leaders: we noted that many of you have wisely given priority to your school leaders who remain stranded abroad.

Commercial flights to China:

  • With Beijing Capital Airport (PEK) closed and scheduled flights diverted to other cities, the number of commercial flights allowed under the Five Ones Policy has been reduced somewhat. Most of the existing flights are fully booked through August with a few seats available in September, but prices have skyrocketed to over $3000-5000 per seat for long haul flights due to social distancing and most passengers flying one way.

  • Along with over 4000 teachers and dependents in ACAMIS member schools, there are upwards of 250,000 foreign experts trying to enter or re-enter China. With 25% of seats kept empty for social distancing, it would require approximately 1250 flights to bring them all back/in. At present landing rates, it would take 16 or more weeks to accomplish this which take until January provided flights were devoted only to bringing people back in. More likely, it will take much longer.

  • Most commercial flights must now have an intermediate stop before entering China, i.e., flights from the US make a stop either in Seoul or in Taipei before carrying on to their designated entry point. These flights require extended travel time to about 25-30 hours, double the usual flight time.

  • The number of commercial flights per week is linked to limited space in quarantine hotels. Just over 20 international flights a week have been entering Shanghai and no major US carrier has a regular landing slot at this time.

Complexities Encountered:

  • Already after the Chinese New Year, the Board and I recognized the enormous problem with getting staff back into China and agreed to explore options to assist with this problem.

  • In order to control the vast numbers of people who travel to and from China normally, the government cancelled all existing visas and replaced them with a PU Letter of Invitation issued by the Foreign Affairs Bureau in each city based on specific needs according to a priority hierarchy.

  • After a PU Letter of Invitation is issued, the recipient(s) must present it to the Embassy wherever they are located. With increasing numbers of PU letters to process, this step can now take two to three weeks before the actual visa is issued.

  • Each additional step that the government added in April and May to prevent the virus from being reimported from abroad added to the travel/entry complexity. The main prevention steps added are the quarantine hotels; the Five Ones Policy; the extra PU letter of invitation; the priority list for issuing those letters; the elongated time to obtain the actual visa; the more recent need to submit a negative virus test through approved testing groups to the nearest Embassy within five days before flight departure in order to receive a QR Code; and cost increases around every corner. It took us weeks of system analysis to discover that teachers were not high on the priority list for PU letters of invitation.

  • In June, we collaborated with the American and European Chambers of Commerce to inform central government of the dilemma facing ACAMIS member schools (and others) and to try to change the priority for teachers who otherwise would not be able to receive letters until sometime into October.

  • It is nearly impossible to change a policy once it is approved so we had to seek exceptions. The ACAMIS Survey of Staffing Needs assisted greatly in convincing the government to make exceptions for teachers. Presentations to central government then led to better understanding and made exceptions possible. As it takes time for exceptions in policy to filter down to the district level, this collaboration remains ongoing through visits by Chamber leaders with Vice-Mayors or Mayors of the cities with most ACAMIS members in them.

  • The survey immediately showed large numbers of staff and dependents waiting, enough to fill a charter flight in both the US and the UK. The ongoing problem is that we cannot book charters until we have a critical mass of issued PU letters of invitation. Last week, Shanghai released letters for our member schools all in one week. Now we are waiting for teachers in other cities to obtain visas to add to the critical mass needed for a flight.

Preparing for CHARTER FLIGHTS:
We are now interviewing charter companies to determine the most reliable with the best aircraft, most direct routes, optimal number of passengers with social distancing, and lowest cost estimate.

  • Charter flights cannot fly into Shanghai or Beijing as their landing slots are limited to commercial aircraft under the Five Ones Policy. Commercial flights to Beijing, have been diverted to other cities depending on landing slots. We must follow the guidance provided. One of the major airports for charter flights from the US is Tianjin. From the UK it is Chengdu, Xi’an or Tianjin. We may not know which airport can be the destination until a charter agreement is signed.

  • Now we work through the red tape of permissions for charter flights, landing time slots, quarantine hotel space in the arrival city, China approved COVID test providers for the test before departure, and hotel accommodations at departure points for staff who are scattered all across the US and UK.

  • As an example of the magnitude of the problem, there are 1011 teachers just from Beijing and Shanghai, not including dependents, scattered across 66 countries waiting to travel to China.

  • Under normal conditions we could bring back teachers first and dependents at some later point. However, in the final permission to reenter/enter (the PU letter of invitation), dependents are linked together with the teacher(s) and must travel together or reapply again later.

Quarantine and Isolation:

  • Minimally, all passengers arriving in China are required to spend 14 days in a designated quarantine hotel upon arrival in port of entry.

  • After arrival quarantine, if teachers move on to another city where their school is located, there may be a further shorter period of isolation.

  • Tentative timeframe: Adding the known quarantine periods to a calendar and what we can surmise might be the first realistic landing time slot on a charter, we can project when arriving teachers can begin work on campus.

Draft timeframe is dependent upon charter flight availability, landing slots and quarantine space:

Sept 10-14:  Finalize flight options to US and UK

Sept 17-21:  Communications with schools about charter offers, solicit

Sept 27-30:  Possible US Flight departure

Sept 30 or Oct 1:  Possible arrival in China (from US)

Oct 13 or 14:  End of 14-day Quarantine in China

Oct 14 or 15:  Fly on to final destination

Oct 19 or 20:  End of 5-day isolation in living quarters (if required)

Oct 21:  First teaching day

Cost Estimates for Charter Flights
This past week a team of veteran Heads and Business Managers has been vetting charter companies to determine the best three offers. The estimates for most aircraft that fly to China and return to their base empty, has increased dramatically to between US$ 600,000 to US$800,000 per flight depending on size/type of aircraft, departure city/country, point of arrival, and number of passengers that reserve space with the total charter cost divided by the number of seats available. Depending on the above factors, the possible cost per person at this time ranges between US$ 3000 and US$ 5000. When we know the final details about charter flights, such as the departure point, type of aircraft available, the number of seats available and the cost per passenger, we will ask if you are interested in participating in a charter flight and send a passenger listing for you to complete.

WHAT TO DO NOW

  1. If you wish to apply for a charter flight, first confer with your Business Manager about the cost estimates so he/she is informed and can be prepared to make a payment with short notice and within a short timeframe so the flights can be contracted. To be prepared, it is best to estimate on the high side. US$ 5000 x number of passengers. Also be aware that there will be other costs per person to reimburse teachers such as expedited COVID test, connecting flights to departure points, additional hotel stays, meals, and higher visa costs. Final passengers can only be those who submitted the PU letter to the Chinese Embassy in their home country, have obtained an official visa and have received a QR Code to verify a negative test result 5 days before departure.

  2. Please bear with us a while longer as we move through these complexities and different procedures between China and two other countries.

  3. Even with our sense of desperation with visas and travel, it commonly takes 4-6 weeks to arrange a charter flight and additional time to obtain required permissions and a landing slot. With nothing available in August, we are looking at mid- September charters from the US and UK at the earliest. This is also due to the need for enough visas to be issued in any country to guarantee a full charter flight. Our desire is to allot some seating to as many members as possible on each flight, but there are political needs to take into account such as priority for teachers in the city that grants landing rights and numbers of dependents that make this complicated.

  4. To bring in as many teachers as possible on the first two flights, on the list you will provide us, we advise you to give priority to leaders, single teachers and most vital positions.

We hope this explanation provides insights into the need, the complexities, the timeframe and the plan. Meanwhile, we are moving ahead to try to contract the first two flights, one from the US and one from the UK and are examining other possible flights and commercial options available.

On behalf of the ACAMIS Board,

Tom Ulmet