At 2 a.m. on Tuesday, MSC Fantasia passenger Julie Cruickshanks, 63, received a letter. It was pushed under the door in her stateroom on the Panamanian-flagged cruise ship, which was resting in port in Lisbon, Portugal.
After more than a week of confusion on board about itinerary changes, disembarkation processes, emails and announcements, Cruickshanks learned in the early hours of the morning she would be going home to Liverpool, England, that day – earlier than expected.
On Sunday, MSC Fantasia disembarked its first group of passengers (all Portuguese nationals and residents) in Lisbon, the cruise line said in a statement provided by spokesperson Alyssa Goldfarb on Tuesday. After leaving the ship, two of those guests tested positive for coronavirus, the disease that has infected more than 417,000 people and killed more than 18,600 around the world, according to Johns Hopkins data.
“So far, British, Brazilian and German nationals/residents have disembarked, transferring from the ship to Lisbon Airport for their onward travel on MSC Cruises-provided charter flights,” Goldfarb said Tuesday, the same day Cruickshanks and the other remaining passengers began disembarking.
“l think they wanted us off quickly,” Cruickshanks told USA TODAY while riding a coach bus to the airport under police escort. ‘”It was chaos.”
After receiving the letter, she and hundreds of others corralled in the ship’s theater to pick up their passports. “We sat for four hours, all together.”
It’s common for cruise ships to hold onto passports on international cruises so passengers can have clearance to disembark at different ports around the world. The service is voluntary, Goldfarb told USA TODAY.
Then, after having their temperatures taken twice on the ship, some Fantasia passengers boarded buses bound for the airport, where they were told to put a seat between them and the nearest passenger and to avoid sitting next to the windows.
But Cruickshanks, who left the ship wearing a mask she had carried on board herself, said that precautions were not followed during the disembarkation process. It was the opposite of social distancing.
“We were packed like sausages just trying to get off the ship,” she said. “It was stupid. It was very cramped. You were shoulder to shoulder – everyone pushing and shoving to get off.”
The disembarkation process is expected to continue through Thursday – at least.
“This is due to the extremely limited availability of flights into many of the countries where guests reside. For the great majority of passengers, MSC Cruises has organized – under the guidance of local authorities – direct charter flights or other transportation by nationality,” the cruise line said.
Goldfarb told USA TODAY in an email that it’s been a challenging process to get passengers off the ship because countries are rapidly altering their border entry guidelines and airports are limiting flights.
In response to Cruickshanks’ allegation that it kept guests in the dark until the last minute, MSC said it notified passengers as soon as it was able to secure charter flights that could leave sooner than their original commercial flights, which were frequently being canceled and might have left passengers stranded. The cruise line said it made an “incredible” effort to update passengers whenever it got reliable information, in order to ensure the quickest and safest return trip possible.
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When Cruickshanks boarded the ship in Rio de Janeiro on March 9, after traveling from London’s Gatwick Airport, everything seemed normal. She was meant to disembark in Barcelona, Spain, though the cruise was scheduled to continue on to Italy, which was placed under a government-mandated lockdown that same day due to the outbreak there.
Then, slowly, as coronavirus continued its spread, closing borders and bringing nations to a standstill, things began to change.
More than 1,000 passengers decided to pack up and leave the ship during a March 13 port call in Maceió, Brazil, Claudio Ferreira, a Brazilian passenger who boarded MSC Fantasia in Rio, told USA TODAY.
Neither Ferreira nor Cruickshanks was part of that group, which Ferreira said disembarked out of concern over countries closing borders.
At the time, MSC told passengers that Fantasia would be sticking to its itinerary, which called for Ferreira to disembark in Genoa, Italy.
Eventually, after it was announced that ports were to be skipped, Ferreira said that MSC told passengers that the ship would dock in Marseilles, France, before landing on Lisbon as its final destination.
MSC said that the situation began to change rapidly soon after the ship left Brazil, with port availability (including Marseilles and Genoa) changing on a minute-by-minute basis. When Lisbon became available, the cruise line opted to do the disembarkation there so that passengers like Cruickshanks could return home as soon as possible and not run the risk of running into more port closures.
Cruickshanks said she thought MSC, which is based in Geneva, handled the situation badly.
“I feel the people on the ship should have been told what was happening. We were told nothing. We were kept in the dark about the flights, about all the ports we were going to,” she said. “They were still booking excursions knowing people were not going to these places.”
On Saturday, Cruickshanks told USA TODAY she truly had no idea of when she would actually get home. They were told that they would be docking in Lisbon and unless they had an airline ticket, they could not disembark. “Nobody seems to know anything.”
Eventually, she was told by a representative of Cruise Nation, the service through which she booked her MSC Fantasia sailing, that she would be going home on Wednesday.
That was before everything changed on Tuesday.
“To be honest, we didn’t know we were going home” until the 2 a.m. letter, Cruickshanks said.
They arrived at the airport without tickets and their bags were put on the plane. The only thing she knew was that she was going to London.
“We were not told we were disembarking and told nothing about this flight. We were not told where it was going; we didn’t know anything,” she said. “l don’t have a clue why.”
In a statement, the cruise line apologized to passengers for the inconveniences created by the situation and asked for their continued trust and understanding.
It’s not just MSC: The entire cruise industry is scrambling
More than a week after it announced it would suspend operations, members of the Cruise Lines International Association are still scrambling to get passengers off ships – often in the nearest port that will allow them to do so – and send them home to wait out the virus.
As of Tuesday morning, approximately 7.1%, or about 20 of CLIA’s 277 member ships were still at sea and in the process of wrapping up voyages. The percentage of ships still in transit is down from 14% (or around 39 ships) Thursday.
“This is a highly fluid situation, with numbers changing by the hour as cruise ships around the world are completing their voyages,” Bari Golin-Blaugrund, CLIA’s senior director of strategic communications, told USA TODAY.
“The vast majority of the rest are either at port, anchored or repositioning,” Golin-Blaugrund said. “CLIA members are focused on the safe and smooth return home of those onboard cruise ships that are currently at sea.”
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Delta Air Lines has reached an agreement with its pilots’ union to offer partial pay amidst dramatic flight cutbacks and the grounding of planes due to the coronavirus.
The deal comes just days after Delta CEO Ed Bastian said he would forgo his paycheck for the next six months to help the airline – but also asked employees to do their part by taking unpaid leave. At the same time, Delta grounded 300 aircraft and cut capacity by 40 percent.
The Atlanta-based carrier’s deal with the union includes partial paid time off between now and June, and potentially longer according to CNBC.
“Delta and our pilots find ourselves navigating a public health and economic crisis in which the landscape changes daily,” the Air Line Pilots Association said in a statement. “Delta pilots are dedicated to the success of our airline and will continue to work with management as we navigate through these extraordinary times.”
It was agreed that Delta pilots who feel feverish, have a cough or difficulty breathing need to call in sick, according to a note the union sent to pilots. Pilots who are diagnosed with the disease will have pay protections for lost flying time.
JetBlue told employees on Saturday they can get up to 14 days paid sick leave if employees test positive for COVID-19 or are forced to quarantine. But, like Delta, it too has asked employees to take unpaid leave.
“In almost a century of commercial aviation, the coronavirus pandemic has already secured its place as the worldwide industry’s single greatest challenge,” JetBlue’s president, Joanna Geraghty, said in a note to employees. “The new plan announced here will add new costs. To the extent these efforts may slow or blunt the spread of this disease among Crewmembers and the general public, they will be worth every penny.”
Official: It’s the best pub crawl ever! Taking a guided tour of London’s most historic boozers
Liquid History Tours runs guided tours around London’s most historic pubs
Those on the tour zigzag across the city, stopping at carefully selected pubs
Max Davidson joined a tour and found it showed Britain at its eccentric best
You might think this fine old British tradition had gone the same way as red telephone boxes and village post offices.
So to discover a pub crawl flourishing in the heart of London, showing tourists Britain at its eccentric best, brought a warm glow to the cheeks of this lifelong aficionado of public houses.
On a recent top-25 list of the world’s best tourist attractions, compiled by TripAdvisor, staggering in, bleary-eyed in 18th place, was a guided tour of London’s historic pubs run by an outfit called Liquid History Tours.
That drinking feeling: The tour turns up outside the famous Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub
There’s nothing to it really. You just meet up with your fellow topers at 2pm outside St Paul’s Underground station and, for the next three-and-a-half hours, zigzag across London, stopping for 20 minutes at a series of carefully selected pubs, all steeped in history.
‘Today, it will be the Black Friar, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, The Ship, the Old Bank of England and the Seven Stars,’ says our guide for the day, Will, a grizzled Londoner who seems able to draw on a bottomless well of knowledge about the capital. ‘
This way!’ And off we trot, 15 of us in all, with Australians and Americans leading an impressively cosmopolitan field.
‘How much do people drink on the tours?’ I ask Will, as he breaks off from a learned spiel about Shakespeare’s London to usher us into the Black Friar, an art nouveau classic built on the site of a medieval Dominican friary.
Depends. Some stick to water. They are more interested in the history than the drinking. Others really enter into the pub crawl spirit. So a pint in every pub, five pubs…’
Water or beer? It’s a no-brainer, particularly as the Australian in front of me has ordered a pint of bitter. I am not going to be out-drunk by an Aussie.
We start joshing about cricket while Will enlightens a couple from Massachusetts about Sir John Betjeman, the Poet Laureate who spearheaded the campaign to save the Black Friar pub when it was threatened with demolition.
And so the long afternoon wears on. A drink, a short stroll, another drink, another short stroll. My drinking companions seem increasingly delightful with each pub we patronise.
The Black Friar, another pub that is on the tour. The Daily Mail’s Max Davidson joined the tour and found it showed Britain at its eccentric best
At 2.30pm, I am still cold-shouldering an American couple who are staunch Trump supporters. By 4.30pm, I am happily buying them a drink. All is forgiven.
But it is the pubs, as much as the people, which are the star attraction of this tour. The area through which we are happily gambolling must be richer in history than anywhere else in Britain, if not the world.
All around us are the ghosts of London past, from Shakespeare to Dickens, from Sweeney Todd to Samuel Johnson, from Fleet Street hacks having boozy long lunches to generations of bewigged barristers ducking into the Seven Stars at the back of the Royal Courts of Justice.
The Seven Stars survived the Great Fire of London in 1666, and is now run by the redoubtable Roxy Beaujolais, who could have put out the fire by herself with her caustic humour. Just another London legend to add to the list.
The bar inside the Old Bank of England pub on Fleet Street, one of the stops on the pub tour
Of the five famous boozers we visit, my favourite one is Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, around the corner from Dr Johnson’s old house.
Writers from Dickens to Mark Twain and P.G. Wodehouse have patronised the pub — as well as generations of journalists in Fleet Street’s newspaper days. No wonder its parrot Polly became a legend and was the subject of national newspaper obituaries on her death in 1926. There is now a stuffed parrot behind the upstairs bar. Cue my Monty Python dead parrot sketch to the baffled assembled crowd.
But London is not the only UK city where escorted pub crawls can introduce visitors — and locals — to this much loved part of our national heritage:
Norwich Pub Tours (norwichpubtours.co.uk) offer guided tours of some of the historic boozers in the centre of the city. The tours are flexible and can be pre-booked. Average cost: £7-£10 per person.
Guided pub crawls through Edinburgh’s atmospheric Old Town can be booked through getyourguide.co.uk. The tours, which last four to five hours, can be pre-booked and cost from £12.
Nottingham, you can visit some of the city’s historic pubs on a tour with Madame Parboiled, the dungeoneer’s wife. The tours can be pre-booked through visit-nottinghamshire.co.uk (search for her name) and are only available on Sunday evenings. Tickets are £7 per person.
Tours with Liquid History Tours run daily 2-6pm, £25, plus drinks. (liquidhistorytours.com).