“This is a special flight, it is a repatriation flight. We wanted you to know that there is nervousness, that there is anxiety, that we are worried. So what I’m going to ask you is to have a little empathy with your neighbour, with us. Finally, I ask you to smile, because we are going home”. These words were spoken by Gastón Altoe, the commander of flight AR133, the first plane that took off from Buenos Aires to Madrid to repatriate the Argentine citizens who were stranded there.
On March 13th, amid extraordinary measures prompted by the Coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19), the Argentine government announced that Aerolíneas Argentinas, the national airline, would rescue citizens from Argentina who were stranded around the world.
“We are working with the airlines of the respective nations and the Argentines overseas so that they can return using these companies starting Monday,” declared the Minister of Transport, Mario Meoni, in a press conference. He explained that the transport would be entrusted “exclusively to Aerolíneas Argentinas, with flights that are already in operation”.
To carry out the repatriations, Aerolíneas Argentinas asked their pilots and crew to sign up as volunteers to man the flights. Gastón Altoe was among those who did not hesitate to sign up to bring home his fellow Argentines who, on their travels, became stranded in countries most at risk from the coronavirus.
Speaking to his country’s Clarín newspaper, days after the first repatriation flight, Altoe stated: “I am not a hero. A whole team of professional crew members did what had to be done. I am someone who has to go straight to sleep after an emotionally-charged flight”. Altoe emphasized that he simply dedicated himself to carrying out his work, and added: “This will go down in the history of our national airline, which has overseen these repatriation flights at such a difficult time”.
In a period of enforced isolation, as decreed by the National Government, and closed international borders, the work of Gastón Altoe and his crew, like that of other pilots and crew members who have signed up to repatriate fellow citizens from at-risk areas, is nothing short of remarkable. When flight AR133 touched down on Argentine soil, the passengers celebrated. The work of Altoe and his crew was acknowledged with a grateful round of applause. “Smile, we’ve brought you home,” Altoe requested over the loudspeaker. It is a time to take care of yourself, to take care of one another, to stay at home and to show solidarity – like Gastón Altoe and his crew.