Trouble in the air for Yap travelers
In early October, United Airlines announced changes to several routes in the Pacific region. Among the changes was suspension of the only weekly flight from Yap to Palau as of January 7, 2018. There aren’t enough passengers to warrant continuing the service. But with only three months’ warning several hundred residents of Yap, most of whom are from the Philippines, were being cut off from their only link into and out of this remote island.
An American visa is required to transit through Guam, the single remaining point of entry after the flights are terminated, and the majority of Filipinos who live and work in Yap do not have one. Entire families must return to the Philippines to apply for visas with no guarantee of receiving them. But many cannot afford to leave work, take their children out of school and pack up their belongings in case they are not given visas. For some the cost of plane tickets is prohibitive.
The Department of Education has 17 teachers and two staff members who are Filipino on three-year contracts. “United needs to hear us,” states Teresa Filepin, Yap’s Director of Education, “and FSM needs to step in and find another solution.”
Those DOE employees whose contracts are renewed can stay on Yap for the duration of their contract. However, if they have a medical emergency or need to leave for any reason during that time, there are no alternatives other than going through Guam. Without a U.S. visa, that is impossible.
The tourism industry has been heavily impacted, as well. The hotels in Yap have had dozens of cancellations. Manta Ray Resort, the largest hotel on the island, has been offering “combo packages” to divers for a Yap-Palau-Philippines itinerary. According to general manager Ruud van Baal, “With no direct flights between Yap and Palau, visitors will have layovers of up to 16 or 17 hours. We’ve had $65,000 worth of bookings cancelled since the announcement. That’s 80 to 100 visitors during our busiest season and there are pending reservations that we expect to be cancelled that will more than double that loss.”
Numie Acker, the resort’s hotel manager, adds, “And that’s just our hotel. We only have 35 rooms so we send our overflow to partner hotels on the island. Other small businesses will be hurt, too.”
Manta Ray invested $10,000 in a Facebook campaign a few hours before the suspension was announced. This is just one part of their promotional campaign that brings visitors from Germany, the Czech Republic, and other European countries. “Our goal was to double the
number of divers coming to Yap over the next two to three years. That’s gone up in smoke,” says van Baal. “The travel agents that we work with tell us to talk with United. We’ve tried but we’re a small hotel and they’re the largest airline in the world. We’re going to talk with the Yap Visitors Bureau and our partners in the Yap Hotel Association about shifting our focus to markets that are nearby like Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan but that shift will take time.”
“We first learned about the suspension when an overseas tour operator told us,” notes Acker. “We still have not received any communication from United. Their on-the-ground staff and the local managers are doing what they can, but their hands are tied, too.”
Manta Ray executives are meeting with members of the Yap State Legislature in an attempt to find out more about alternative proposals that are being considered. “But there’s no information coming from FSM national. That’s very upsetting to us,” says Acker. “They’re not sharing their plans or even telling us what they’re working on. It’s all hearsay. It’s as if they don’t care what happens to Yap because it doesn’t affect them.”
Manta Ray has employees from Russia, Indonesia, Germany, Switzerland as well as the Philippines who must obtain U.S. visas to transit through Guam. The American Embassy in Palau can process applications. “But they only have eight appointments a week and they’re now booked solid until Christmas,” says van Baal. “Even if they do get a U.S. visa,” adds Acker, “they’ll go to the United States, not return to Yap.”
American Ambassador Robert Riley visited Yap recently and met with a group of resident Americans. A suggestion was made that a transit lounge be installed in the airport like those provided in other airports around the world. However, Homeland Security eliminated the Transit Without Visa (TWOV) program after 9/11. Transiting through a U.S. airport requires at least a C-1 transit visa or a travel authorization for Visa Waiver Program (VWP) travelers. Riley told the group that he planned to meet with officials in Guam on his return to Pohnpei to explore this option since Guam is “an exception not found anywhere else in the world.” It was also suggested that an embassy staff member be sent to Yap to process visas, but Riley said this would not be possible.
In 2014, the Association of Pacific Island Legislatures issued a resolution stating “that this Assembly recognizes the need for restructuring the flight schedules of United Airline for planes flying to and from the State of Yap and for planes continuing on from Yap to Palau and the Philippines and urgently request United Airlines to ensure that their flight schedules adequately take into account the needs for frequent, reliable and affordable airline services in this air particular corridor not only for the people of Yap, but also for the people of the entire APIL Pacific…”
The regional carrier PMA has expressed interest in taking over the Yap-Palau route but needs permission from FSM. PMA is willing to add a larger plane to their small fleet to take over the route, but with no information coming from the FSM government about what they are considering, the options being considered are unknown.