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Operation DGAR: A Collective Effort to Repatriate Stranded Mariners During a Global Pandemic

Operation DGAR: A Collective Effort to Repatriate Stranded Mariners During a Global Pandemic
Chris Fertig September 22, 2021

A Case Study in the flexibility, ingenuity and responsiveness of the commercial maritime industry during the COVID-19 Pandemic.

By the spring of 2020, COVID-19 restrictions on travel had stranded hundreds of mariners on 13 commercial and U.S. government-owned ships based on and around the remote island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. The pandemic had shut down the normal military flights between Bahrain, Singapore and Diego Garcia, leaving the mariners and the island’s land-based personnel with no way on or off the atoll. The situation was growing worse by the day. Willie Barrere, National Executive Vice President of the America Maritime Officers union remembers the situation well:

“Our Mariners were stranded on their vessels in Diego Garcia unable to get back home to their families – some for over nine months. At the same time, their designated reliefs were home unable to collect a paycheck and feed their families. The situation got worse by the day and no one was able to come up with a contingency plan to solve this serious issue. As concern escalated on all fronts, one of our civilian operating companies – Maersk Line, Limited – assembled a team to come up with an “outside the box” solution.”

But what to do? The island of Diego Garcia (often referred to as DGAR for short), is located in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and is one of the most isolated and geographically remote places in the world. Its location in the middle of nowhere is a key reason the island is so strategically valuable to the U.S. and U.K. militaries, but its remoteness makes it very difficult to support logistically in normal times – and these were anything but normal times.

Mariners traveling to and from ships stationed on Diego Garcia would normally board commercial flights from the U.S. to either Bahrain or Singapore where they would remain in hotels until they could catch a flight on an Air Mobility Command (AMC) C-17 military cargo plane – a trip which typically takes three to four days. As the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the globe, getting commercial flights to Bahrain and Singapore became difficult, and the Air Mobility Command flights from those locations to DGAR stopped flying. As a result, crew changes ground to a halt, and hundreds of mariners on ships pre-positioned in Diego Garcia, or operating in the region, were effectively stuck there. The crews had already been forced to work extremely long rotations onboard with no relief and the stressors of those prolonged tours with no rest or time off were taking their toll on the mental and physical well-being of the men and women who were stranded.

Operation DGAR is born

The team at Maersk Line, Limited (MLL) went to work to see if they could solve the DGAR crew relief challenge. It wouldn’t be easy. Any solution providing crew transport from the U.S. East Coast to Diego Garcia would need to include a strict 14-day crew quarantine; multiple rounds of COVID-19 PCR testing; “clean” charter bus transportation to a private air terminal; a private aircraft capable of flying long distances over the water; “clean” ground transport from the airfield in DGAR to the marina; and finally, launch service from the marina to each ship anchored in the harbor.

Steven Case, a Program Manager at MLL, volunteered to develop the airlift solution. “It was an exciting opportunity. My experience is primarily in ship operations, so I had to learn a lot about aircraft charter operations really quick” Steve remarked. MLL partnered with the global aviation services provider ACC Aviation to help in vetting potential aircraft operators and provide ongoing management of this unique and challenging airlift mission. Working closely with ACC’s specialists, MLL concluded that a plane with extensive range would be needed for this operation due to the distances required to be flown over water. Additionally, in order for the plane to be able to carry U.S. Government personnel, a Department of Defense Commercial Airlift Review Board (CARB) certification would be required, a certification which only very few air carriers possess.

Based on the challenging airlift requirements, private aircraft operator Omni Air International was determined to be best suited to provide chartered aircraft for the mission, utilizing one of their 767-200 extended-range wide-body passenger jets. These aircraft had the range to fly from the continental U.S. to DGAR only making one stop to re-fuel, and could carry 200+ passengers and several tons of cargo.

Finding an aircraft that could make the flight was one thing, but figuring out how to make the operation financially viable was another. Normal flights under pre-COVID conditions to DGAR from the U.S. East Coast cost about $3,500 to $4,000 per person. Chartering a 767-200 round-trip from the East Coast to DGAR and back was going to be expensive – really expensive.

While Steve Case was musing on how to make the airlift portion of the mission more cost-effective, Mike Hawley was hard at work developing a COVID testing and quarantine solution. “Fourteen days is a very long time to be locked in a hotel, so I visited a lot of hotels to try and develop a solution which would provide the best compromise between safety and crew comfort,” he recalled. In addition, COVID-19 testing would be required on the first and last days of the quarantine for each traveler – rules that were established by the U.S. and U.K. military leadership responsible for managing operations on the island. While COVID testing is fairly easy to come by now, in the spring of 2020 it was in high demand and a challenge to secure the quantities of testing materials needed for a large group of people, especially since it needed to occur at the quarantine location. Mike found himself running into the same problem that was stymying Steve – the quarantine and testing was going to be expensive. For the operation to move forward, it became clear that significant economies of scale for both the air charter and the quarantine and testing solution were going to be needed.

“For this to work, we need to partner with our competitors.” Let’s be honest, that’s not a phrase you hear very often in business, especially in the fiercely competitive U.S. Maritime industry. Would there be interest in working together? How would the idea be received? There was only one way to find out. So, the team started working the phones calling every ship operating company with ships in the Diego Garcia region.

“If you can make it work, we are in!” That was the response from all commercial ship operators, as well as the U.S. Military Sealift Command (MSC), which was also struggling to conduct crew reliefs for its civilian mariners (CIVMARs) on ships in the region.

It was time to try and bring all the pieces together and determine if the mission was operationally and financially viable. A target date of departure was set for May 20, 2020. The team worked the phones to tally total passenger interest. Patriot Contracting Services, Crowley Maritime, Schuyler Lines Navigation and Sealift all eagerly requested seats on the mission for their respective crews. as did MSC. The passenger list even included an active-duty military member trying to make it out to the island. The total round-trip tally came to 233 travelers.

“This might just work…” the MLL team concluded. With a notional total passenger count, the denominator portion of the financial viability equation was established. The missing piece was the numerator – the total mission cost. After many rounds of contract negotiations, the MLL team had all of the remaining costs pulled together and entered into a cost-tracking spreadsheet. When the final costs were tallied and divided by the total number of committed passengers, the price per person for airlift from the U.S. East Coast to DGAR was approximately $2,700 dollars per person. That was a significant cost savings per person compared to utilizing the normal mode of transportation to Diego Garcia! In addition, the total travel time to and from DGAR would be 22 hours versus the normal three to four days.

“Now we need to get a lot of permissions and clearances.” As one might imagine, you can’t just land a commercial jet liner on one of the most secure military runways in the world, so extensive clearances had to be applied for and granted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), MSC, as well as relevant U.S. and U.K. military authorities. Additionally, since the aircraft would be returning back to the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic, special approvals were needed through the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. One by one, and not without a lot of administrative challenges, all of the required approvals were obtained. The team from ACC Aviation and Omni Air International, with support from MSC, deserve a lot of credit for obtaining these approvals so quickly.

“We are a go!” With enough passengers to make the plan feasible and all the required regulatory approvals in hand, it was time to put the months’ worth of planning into action. Mariners flew in from all corners of the U.S., and even from overseas to begin the mandated 14-day quarantine. Quarantine day one started off with the prescribed COVID-19 PCR testing – deep nasal swabs greeted the socially-distanced mariners as they moved through the testing line, clad in protective masks and toting bottles of hand sanitizer. The next day, the test results showed several mariners were, in fact, COVID positive, and thus would not be able to join the flight and return to work. Proper arrangements were made by their respective companies, and they departed for medical care and observation.

As the mariners settled into as comfortable a quarantine routine as could be accommodated, the team was working to establish the logistics plan for the day of departure. One challenge remaining was working through the passenger screening plan. MSC’s COVID policy prohibited crews from utilizing the main aircraft terminal at Norfolk International Airport over concerns of potential exposure to COVID just prior to traveling to DGAR. Signature Aviation operates a private air terminal (referred to in aviation-speak as an FBO) at Norfolk International Airport; however, it is designed to service much smaller planes. As it turned out, however, Signature Aviation had previously serviced one 767-200 at their facility – owned by none other than the Canadian rapper and actor Drake! While the aircraft could land and taxi to Signature Aviation, the asphalt tarmac wasn’t rated to turn the aircraft when it was fully fueled, which was required for the flight to the planned refueling stop in Sofia, Bulgaria. To solve this issue, a plan was devised to land the aircraft, turn it around, and back it into position. The aircraft would then be pointed directly at the runway so that it could be fully fueled, then proceed directly onto the stronger main runway at Norfolk International Airport for departure.

The days passed slowly for the mariners quarantined in the Hilton Garden Inn in Suffolk, Virginia. Mike had selected this hotel for its large rooms and a few acres of green space where people could get outside for fresh air or exercise while staying socially distanced and abiding by all of the quarantine rules and regulations. Fifteen days after the mariners arrived, four “sanitized” chartered buses arrived and everyone began boarding for the 45 minute drive to the airport.

“We are all loaded up and rolling,” Mike exclaimed to Steve as he pulled in front of the four-bus convoy departing for the airport. Steve replied, “The plane is on the ground, turned around and lined up with the runway. We just need to get her fueled up, and we will be ready for you when you get here.” Steve carefully reviewed the various passenger lists, re-checking the flight manifest to ensure everyone was accounted for.

At 7:15 PM local time, Mike led the bus convoy of mariners through the gate at Signature Aviation and out onto the tarmac. There, a glistening white and red, fully fueled Boeing 767-200 was sitting pointed directly at the runway, with its cargo and passenger doors open and ready for passengers. “That’s cool!” Mike yelled out over the jet noise emanating from the aircraft’s auxiliary power unit as he brought the convoy to a stop at the base of the accommodation steps leading up to the aircraft. One by one, mariners exited the charter buses, were processed through passenger screening, and boarded the aircraft. At 9:15 PM the aircraft taxied straight out of the Signature Aviation flight line, and onto the main runway at Norfolk International Airport and queued up in line for departure. It took off at 9:30 PM.

After a 22-hour flight, including the refueling stop in Sofia, Bulgaria, the first flight of what would become known as “Operation DGAR” landed at 5:15 in the morning. Mariners were greeted by U.S. Navy logistics specialists who collected them and their baggage, and shuttled them to a nearby boat ramp to be transported out to their respective ships anchored in the lagoon. Over the next 36 hours, mariners would perform their customary crew relief procedures getting briefed on ship operations and material condition issues that had transpired since they were last on board.

After a day and a half overlap, the weary crews that had been stranded in DGAR (some for over nine months!) began their much-needed journey home. First came a landing craft-ride to shore. This was followed by a truck ride to the air terminal and a long walk to board the aircraft. Then came a 22-hour flight back to Norfolk and finally, the last leg of the journey home – and to a world that was strangely different than the one they departed when they had gone to sea many months before.

The first flight of Operation DGAR was an overwhelming success, safely repatriating 119 mariners and transporting 114 replacement crewmembers to DGAR, ensuring continued readiness of the fleet while allowing mariners to get back to their ships and start receiving pay again. At that point, no one envisioned that more than a year later Operation DGAR would still be underway, nor would they have predicted the impact it would have on U.S. military readiness and crew welfare.

As the operation progressed, it continually improved through unusually close teamwork among industry competitors. For example, Patriot Contracting Services spearheaded the shift of quarantine location to the Maritime Institute of Technology & Graduate Studies (MITAGS), and Maritime Conference Center (MCC), a maritime training campus just outside of Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) airport. Additionally, Crowley Maritime sourced and shipped hard-to-obtain COVID test kits to Diego Garcia when the CDC and FAA implemented mandatory COVID testing for all international passengers traveling back into the U.S.

The shift to MITAGS-MCC as a quarantine location significantly improved the overall quarantine solution as the facility offered a closed campus with better accommodations, on-site COVID testing, meal preparation, and “clean” transportation to BWI (five minutes away). As an added bonus, mariners could receive various maritime training courses while stuck in quarantine. The MITAGS-MCC team worked as an extension of MLL, providing everything from an orientation video to hands-on operational oversight while mariners stayed on campus.

Between May 20, 2020 and July 31, 2021, Operation DGAR completed eight airlift missions from the U.S. East Coast to Diego Garcia, moving 1,849 commercial and civilian mariners, regulatory personnel, contractors, and active-duty military personnel from the U.S. Navy, Army, Air Force and Space Force. Additionally, those flights carried over 10,000 pounds of critical spare parts and supplies needed to sustain more than 13 different ships supporting government operations in the Indian Ocean region.

Willie remarked: “Maersk’s drive to bring some normalcy to a chaotic situation was eclipsed only by the execution of their repatriation operation. On behalf of all our mariners, a Bravo Zulu to the MLL team!”

Operation DGAR not only solved the COVID crewing and re-supply challenges on Diego Garcia, but it did so at a significant cost and time savings. In fact, the solution was so efficient that MLL is working to train its competitors on how to continue to run the service once the last Maersk ship departs the region, allowing mariners and their ships operating in and around Diego Garcia to continue to take advantage of Operation DGAR’s cost and time efficiency and reliability.