How a private security firm helped 144 stranded North Americans leave Honduras on a jet
With the coronavirus shutting down borders, some turned to former intelligence officers to get home.
On Sunday morning, a group of former military and intelligence officers were staged at a small airport on a Honduran island, loading up a plane that would whisk Americans back home amid the raging coronavirus pandemic.
It wasn't a clandestine CIA operation, but it was a real life, movie-scene-worthy moment for 144 Americans and Canadians who were stranded on the island Roatan, desperate to get home during an out-of-control global pandemic.
The lengths to which this small group stuck in a Central American country went to get home — going so far as to hire a private security firm — is just one storyline among thousands spread across the globe, as travelers overwhelmed airports and the State Department tried to repatriate Americans, while others have ended up stuck in foreign countries.
One of the rescued Americans, Annie Perlick, a neonatal ICU nurse from Boston on vacation for a scuba trip, discovered she was about to be stranded when Honduras shut down its borders on March 15. Perlick tried the U.S. embassy and reached out to the senators from her home state with no luck. She purchased commercial airline tickets for later this week, as she watched flights being canceled left and right.
"It was an overwhelming sense of confusion, skepticism, misinformation, fear and frustration," Perlick told POLITICO.
Then she heard about Global Guardian, a private security firm, which had begun to arrange a flight out of Roatan for several clients — including an entertainment company and law firm.
Ultimately, Global Guardian, based in McLean, Va., ferried 144 people out of the country on a McDonnell-Douglas MD-80, a model that used to be in heavy rotation for airlines. But not before its CEO Dale Buckner, a 24-year Army special forces veteran, found himself giving instructions for how many pets passengers could bring on an airplane.
"There will be no alcohol. It'll be soft drinks only," Buckner told the passengers.
Buckner said his firm typically works with corporate clients and "high net worth" families, and has evacuated roughly 2,000 of people — some by by air and some over land — from those categories over the last few weeks.
When the company heard about others that were desperate to get home, Buckner made a few tweaks to its business model. Working with the Honduran government, U.S. embassy and FAA, they figured out how to take a disparate group of stranded people and essentially operate like an airline, except that all of its people on the ground were former military, law enforcement or intelligence types, as Buckner put it.
It worked, after Buckner arranged conference calls with skeptical passengers. Now, he says, they're looking to repeat it with more flights in Honduras and elsewhere.
"I've never seen the world shut down at this scale, where airspace and borders are closed," Buckner said in an interview. "This is unique, a black swan. So of course we, being in this business, are going to really ramp up."
Global Guardian charged $1,324 per passenger — somewhat more than typical airfare for a one-way commercial flight from Honduras to the U.S., but less than the State Department is charging for its ongoing repatriation flights from Morocco. Buckner said they created a "financial waterfall" price model where the more seats they filled on the plane, the less each individual passenger would have to pay.
Buckner acknowledged that the pandemic offers a chance to make money for companies like his, saying it should be "a very profitable event for us. We're in the emergency response business," he said. "But we're not ripping people off. We're not gouging people."
The State Department has been taking on evacuations largely on a case-by-case basis, working to arrange charter flights out of different countries including Guatemala, Morocco and Peru where it’s been difficult or impossible for citizens to buy commercial tickets back home. The military has been involved in the efforts as well and has brought home Americans using its aircraft, according to several reports.
A senior State Department official told reporters Monday that the U.S. government has bought home more than 5,000 citizens from 17 countries, but that there are around 13,500 more asking for help.
In some cases, Americans have chosen to take matters into their own hands by, for example, crossing over the border from Guatemala into southern Mexico to get onto airline flights still flying.