Travellers scramble for US-bound flights ahead of coronavirus travel ban

by Agnes Coudurier-Curveur in Paris with Joe Jackson at Heathrow
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Donald Trump announced a 30-day exclusion of anyone who had visited the Schengen border-free area -- which excludes Britain -- in the 14 days before travelling to the United States

US-bound travellers caught in Europe after the announcement of President Donald Trump's coronavirus travel ban scrambled Thursday to change tickets or catch planes ahead a weekend cutoff, anxious, confused and annoyed by the extraordinary move.

Long lines formed at airports in London and Paris as Americans and would-be visitors, many sporting surgical masks, sought to change their tickets or check out insurance options.

"We just got off our plane and we're going to go straight back -- we can't believe it," said 29-year-old Tiara Streng, queueing with three friends at London's Heathrow Airport for a return flight to Colorado.

They were cutting short a 10-day European holiday, seven months in the planning, that was to include a trip to the Vatican and celebrating St Patrick's Day in Ireland, for which all parades were called off amid the coronavirus outbreak that has sickened more than 20,000 people in Europe and killed about 930, according to an AFP count.

"I think it's completely ridiculous," Streng said of Trump's 30-day ban on anyone who had visited Europe -- but not Britain -- in the 14 days before their arrival in the United States, where more than 1,100 cases of COVID-19 infection have been detected, with 28 deaths.

Trump announced late Wednesday a 30-day exclusion of anyone who had visited the continent's Schengen border-free area in the 14 days before travelling to the United States.

The ban will come into effect from midnight on Friday (0400 GMT Saturday in Europe), and does not apply to US citizens or permanent residents.

The move caused widespread consternation among travellers, with even American citizens, exempt from the ban, uncertain about their status after the Saturday deadline.

Many feared Trump would eventually toughen the restrictions, stranding them on foreign shores.

At Heathrow, travellers formed long queues at the counters of American, Virgin and Delta airlines, all of which have several flights to the United States every day.

"When we landed (in London) is when we got all the messages," said Brooke Ward, 32. "Obviously we don't want to leave but we think it's best to go back."

According to her travel companion Deepi Grewal, 28, "we were told to come home by our family, British Airways, everyone basically. They said it's better to come back. We're worried they (the United States) are going to say tomorrow we all need to come home."

- 'Get in before we can't' -

There were also long queues at American carriers' counters at Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris.

"We were about an hour into our flight from Salt Lake City when we got news of the travel ban to the United States, so we are trying to get back home now," an American who gave her name as Michelle told AFP.

"Hopefully we can get a flight out tomorrow, I don't know. We are just trying to get in before we can't."

Jennifer, who hails from Idaho, said she was in the air when the announcement came, "so we really have no information... We are told that we need to be back by Friday, and that's all I know."

French travel agents estimate that about 100,000 people who have booked trips to the United States via agencies in France will be affected by the anti-virus measure.

"It is the worst news for airlines, and it is the worst situation for us," Rene-Marc Chikli, president of a French tour operators' federation, told AFP.

At Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, people waited at KLM's customer service counter to change their tickets.

"Our trip (to Europe) was supposed to go until Sunday but we have to go home early because of the travel ban," said Tristan Jensen, 20, from Detroit.

"We're just trying to see home as soon as possible," he said.

At Zaventem airport in Brussels, people were also weighing their options.

"I was supposed to leave for the United States on March 27 for two concerts in New York. Unfortunately, since Mr. Trump decided not to receive us, we had no choice but to come and change the tickets," said Belgian Virginie Chardon.

American tourist Tony Liung, wearing a surgical mask, said: "My wife and I heard the news there is a travel restriction from the US for all European flights, so we're trying to change our flight. Originally we're going back to the U.S. on Monday. However, because of the travel restriction, we're trying to change our flight to earlier."

New York University, meanwhile, has stopped classes at its study-abroad programmes in Berlin, Madrid, Paris and Prague and asked students to return home.

NYU shut down its programme in the Italian city of Florence two weeks ago.

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Donald Trump announced a 30-day exclusion of anyone who had visited the Schengen border-free area -- which excludes Britain -- in the 14 days before travelling to the United States

French travel agents estimate that about 100,000 people who have booked trips to the United States via agencies in France will be affected by the anti-virus measure