Rishi Kumar, councilmember of Saratoga and candidate for U.S. House of Representative CA-16, woke up the morning of Friday, July 22nd to find numerous text messages and an inbox full of urgent emails. “Rishi, can you help us? Our Saratoga students are stuck in Prague.” “Rishi, your constituents are asking for your urgent action. Can you shake up Lufthansa please!” “Rishi, we need you to do something!”
The orchestra, band, choir, parents and family of Saratoga High School, located in the suburbs of Silicon Valley, Saratoga, a beautiful bedroom community of 31,000 residents, had been touring Austria, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic for two weeks, beginning July 8. A total of 118 Saratoga High School students and about 40 adult chaperones were on the tour, which included student teams from the band, choir and orchestra delivering 15 stunning performances across Central Europe. Arriving at Prague airport on Wednesday July 20th at 3:30am to take the Lufthansa 6:30am flight to Frankfurt and then to California, they were informed by Lufthansa that their flight had been canceled due to “bad weather.” Lufthansa was unable to offer any alternate bookings. Parents, students, school administrators, teachers and chaperones pleaded with Lufthansa customer relations but to no avail. Children were tired and parents were getting stressed. When they would be coming back was becoming less and less certain.
Their initial outreach to the local congressional representative’s office led to the U.S. embassy being contacted, but time was slipping away. The situation was still deadlocked. Families had plans, parents had to be back at work and needed an urgent resolution. Lufthansa customer relations was seemingly not demonstrating any empathy while this large group awaited, very tired after their long tour, trapped in a foreign country with apparently no way out. Mr. Boitz, Director of Orchestra and Band was incredulous, "One gentleman (from Lufthansa) said, I can get all of you home in September. Get you all on a flight in September!” Of course, that was not an option as students needed to get back to prepare for school that started in about three weeks and parents needed to get back to their jobs. No one could afford to be stuck in Prague at the mercy of an unresponsive airline company.
Given that there were not enough chaperones for the students if they broke up into smaller groups, Lufthansa USA headquarters declared that the issue warranted a chartered flight for the group but required Lufthansa Germany to take charge. Lufthansa Germany didn’t have any such proposal they were willing to make. A charter flight was the best option, but it didn’t seem a reality based on Lufthansa’s lackadaisical response.
Rishi’s Friday action plan was quick and decisive. By the end of Friday, 331 emails had been directed to Lufthansa’s CEO Carsten Spohr, the German ambassador in Washington, and the German Consulate General in San Francisco - pleading with them to take action and get the students back home with their parents. Rishi had managed to rally the residents of Saratoga into sending emails. Rishi quickly garnered the support of two reporters from ABC7 and NBC Bay Area. Tim Jue of ABC7 interviewed the Saratoga High School music teachers and director at Prague over Zoom which was televised on the evening news. NBC Bay Area’s Gonzalo Rojas also provided coverage visiting Saratoga and interviewing some of the parents.
The email that Rishi had drafted was short and simple making the call to action easy. “Lufthansa zeigt kein Herz und hat Schüler der Saratoga High School in Prag gestrandet. Können Sie bitte etwas tun und diesen Schülern helfen, die gerade sehr gestresst sind, sich wieder mit ihren Eltern zu vereinen!! Diese Gruppe von über 100 Schülern, Eltern und Begleitpersonen – Teil der Saratoga High School Band – verdient einen Charterflug von Prag nach San Francisco. Kann ich in dieser Angelegenheit auf Ihr dringendes Handeln zählen?”
By Saturday morning, Lufthansa Germany had a sudden 180 degree shift and agreed to a charter flight. It was a tremendous relief for the dozens of Californians thousands of miles from home.
Ron Kirkish via email applauded Rishi’s effort. “This is an example of what our elected leaders and city administration can do [..] and who were elected to represent our city, to help our communities deal with our many problems.”
Arun Venkatachari, whose child was stranded, expressed his thanks. “Great work Rishi for jumping in such a short time and creating a big impact. Glad that we have you working for us!”
Dhiraj Bora who was out in Prague with his family also expressed his thanks. “Thanks for actively helping and drumming the media along with (barrage of) emails. We appreciate that very much. We were actually in Prague so we remember the ‘Blank’ update we had on Friday night. We were absolutely surprised that within 24 hrs the chartered flight was committed by Lufthansa. Without a doubt the pressure that came from the U.S. helped !!!”
David Dier gave a thumbs up to Rishi’s efforts - “Happy to see Rishi on the ground game here”
Rishi was delighted with the outcome. “Our families and their children were looking for help. I am glad I was able to do my bit. As a father, I know how stressful it can be and I am glad our students didn’t have to wait till August or September to be united with their families as per Lufthansa’s strange commitment. All’s well that ends well. They might call us a sleepy bedroom community of Silicon Valley, but we have a big. booming voice that can be hard to ignore in a crisis situation, we know how to shake up the tree and get things done”.
The group heaved a sigh of relief as they boarded the Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt on Monday and headed home.