May 19, 2009 - Although Anne entered and departed Iraq exclusively through Amman, people assigned to Embassy Baghdad and its satellite offices also have the option of transiting through Kuwait. The advantages are military air (milair) flights that fly five times a week (instead of only the Thursday and Sunday flights to Amman) and the possibility of booking a non-stop flight to Washington, DC (while flights from Amman require a transfer in a European city). (As of this writing, the United flight departs Kuwait at 11:45 p.m. and arrives in Dulles at 6:45 a.m. the following day. A United code-share non-stop operated by Lufthansa also leaves an hour later.) You are still required, however, to begin your travel a day early to stay overnight at the State Department Sully Compound at Baghdad International Airport (BIAP), since check-in for the flight is fairly early in the morning, and, in Kuwait, the State Department will not authorize a stay in a hotel while waiting for the flight like it does for a transit through Amman. (One can, of course, always pay for a hotel room out-of-pocket.) I decided to go to Kuwait on my second R&R, since I planned to travel to Virginia to attend my daughter's university graduation. (As it turned out, I didn't book the non-stop flight but transited through Frankfurt.)
Transiting through Kuwait requires dealing with two different offices and a different travel agency. The Iraq Support Unit (ISU) Amman, which is the single point-of-contact for Amman transits, issues the travel orders, but ISU Kuwait coordinates on-the-ground arrangements with the Federal Deployment Center (FDC) and ticketing with the U.S. Embassy Kuwait's contract travel agency in Kuwait, Al-Rashed International Travel Company. (This explains something that puzzled me initially, why my flight was priced in Kuwaiti dinars.) ISU Kuwait provides a good guide, "Traveling through Kuwait," which I am drawing from to write this, but the guide is somewhat confusing and I am also supplementing the information with my own personal observations.
My itinerary originally had me departing Kuwait in the early morning of May 6, at 12:55 a.m, after arriving in Kuwait on May 5. The C-130 departing from BIAP, however, needed a part replaced, and the bad dust storm prevented the part from being flown in. Al-Rashed travel was reasonably responsive about provisionally rebooking me on a flight the next night, but the experience points up the increasing likelihood of flight delays now that the Embassy has had to switch from the C-17 Globemaster to the older C-130 Hercules, a turboprop airplane first introduced in 1956 (although with continuous upgrades and improvements). The more limited passenger capacity of the C-130 has also created problems rebooking lower priority travelers on later flights.
The dust storm continued to play hob with my travel arrangements, but after being listed on stand-by twice, a C-17 took everyone who had flights canceled to Kuwait mid-day on May 6. After an hour flight, we landed at the U.S. Air Force Ali Al-Salem Air Base, where waiting buses took passengers to the U.S. Army Life Support Area (LSA) of the Air Force base, where the military wait for connecting military flights. We exited the bus and were taken to Tent Three, where we handed over our Department of Defense (DoD) identification, the Common Access Card (CAC), to have them scanned in. When I got my CAC back, we proceeded to Tent Two, next door, to the contractor processing center, where I emphasized that I was not a contractor, but a U.S. Embassy employee and filled out a form with my identifying details and did not apply for a Kuwaiti visa. I then retrieved my luggage, which had been placed in a pallet across the street from where we got off the bus and headed to Tent One. At the very end of Tent One, I joined two other Embassy employees at the USM-I (U.S. Mission Iraq) counter, which I think might be staffed and operated by KBR on a contract. I turned in my personal protective equipment (PPE) and received a receipt to be used to claim it again on my return trip. Within a few minutes, the USM-I counter person was taking us to the Crowne Plaza Hotel, about a 45-minute drive to Kuwait proper. (Normally, the USM-I liaison would have met us as soon as we got off the bus upon arrival, but we had arrived on a non-scheduled military mission and not on the usual milair flight that the State Department arranges with DoD for Embassy personnel.)
In lieu of authorizing a hotel room for the half-day in Kuwait, the State Department maintains what appears to be two junior suites, one on the second floor and another on the third floor of the Crowne Plaza, as the previously mentioned Federal Deployment Center (FDC) lounges. (One reason might be the cost of hotel rooms in Kuwait. We were told that a room at the Crowne Plaza cost more than $300 per night, about twice the U.S. government per diem rate in Amman.) The beds have been taken out of the room, and sofas and armchairs have been placed in the living room and what would normally be a separate bedroom. The bathroom is stocked with clean towels and there are two computer terminals with internet access in the second-floor FDC lounge and just one terminal in the third-floor lounge. Both rooms have a large-screen TV with satellite, but not military Armed Forces Network, reception. I watched a little television, and then took a nap on the sofa in the bedroom area, since I had stayed up through much of the night or napped in plastic chairs while on stand-by for the flight from BIAP. I also went to dinner at the Crowne Plaza's Sakura restaurant. At 11:00 p.m., "Omar" took me to Kuwait's commercial airport, which is just ten minutes or so from the Crowne Plaza, and made sure that I got to the right counter and through immigration.
return flight from Frankfurt arrived at 8:00 p.m. two weeks later. The process played out pretty much in reverse,
with a new twist which must have been instituted because of the H1N1 ("swine")
flu threat. During the flight, I
received and filled out a Kuwaiti Ministry of Health "Health Surveillance
Once we were in the arrivals terminal, three or four people dressed in medical gowns and wearing face masks used an instrument like a penlight evidently to take our temperatures. Then, when we tried to pass through immigration control, we were waved back to a long line to the right of the glass doors into the area. At the head of the line, two officials placed a "Port H. Office Kuwait Air Port" stamp on the Health Surveillance Card and retained two copies.
On my second try, the immigration officer took a quick look at the Health Surveillance Card, but did not keep it. On my departure, the expediter was very insistent that I enter using only my CAC, so, when the immigration officer also asked to see my passport, I didn't give it to him but passed over a form that the Kuwait ISU had e-mailed to me documenting what CACs can be used for entry. The immigration officer must have required the passport just to be able to enter my birth date, but he was satisfied to have me write it down for him. I probably could have given him my passport, but I didn't want to risk having him automatically stamp it, since I was told that would mean I would need to get a visa or pay a steep fine for every day without it.
Once I retrieved my luggage, I saw someone from the FDC holding up a sign with DOS USMI (for "Department of State U.S. Mission Iraq") on it and we left for the Crowne Plaza. I was taken to the third floor FDC lounge, and, since we would depart for Ali Al-Salem in the middle of the night, I surfed the internet and napped for the few hours before departure. Since passengers are required to check in several hours before departure, which is set based on the earliest possible departure of the flight, passengers en route to BIAP are normally at Ali Al-Salem in the wee hours of the morning. Upon arrival at Ali Al-Salem, in another new procedure, we got off the bus and waited in an adjacent tent while the base security personnel inspected our carry-on luggage, which we were required to leave on the bus. I knew several people on the flight, so we bought "breakfast" at McDonalds (in my case, a Big Mac) and had coffee from the Green Bean. We didn't have anything to do except wait, since the FDC employee took our CACs and passports to check us in and our luggage was taken directly from the Crowne Plaza to be palletized for loading. The return flight arrangements proceeded smoothly and I was back at the Embassy by noon.
I asked several people whether staying at Ali Al-Salem's LSA might be preferable to staying at the Crowne Plaza's FDC lounge, but received the uniform reply that the Crowne Plaza was preferable. Other travelers were also enthusiastic about the Crowne Plaza's fitness center (which I didn't check out). I didn't think the answer was so obvious, however. The LSA evidently has a tent with cots and Tent One also has a large lounge area with easy chairs and a TV. The Crowne Plaza FDC lounges felt rather crowded, however, and the one or two internet terminals seemed inadequate. Ali Al-Salem, on the other hand, has an internet cafe. Sure, one has to pay to get connected, but there's no wait and no one is hanging over your shoulder waiting for a turn. Ali Al-Salem also has a DFAC and the range of other concessionaires providing food -- McDonald's, Pizza Hut, Subway, Green Bean, etc. Granted, the Crowne Plaza is also a convention center, so it has seven restaurants on the grounds, but I paid $50 for a mediocre dinner at the Sakura Restaurant, which doesn't compare favorably to a free dinner at the DFAC. (The Crowne Plaza's other restaurants offer French, Italian, Lebanese, and Iranian cuisine, seafood, steak, and an international buffet. I hear that the Ribeye Steakhouse and the Al Ahmadi International Restaurant, with the buffet, are the best value.) The Crowne Plaza also seemed relatively isolated and not close to other attractions. Finally, getting to the commercial airport early and waiting is probably not advisable, although the airport does have a range of fast food restaurants before passing through immigration control to the departure gates but little else to do.