Flight KL592 took off without incident from Johannesburg at 1.15 on November 26, after the South African authorities checked the documentation and vaccination status of the almost 300 passengers on board the Boeing 777-300 of the Dutch airlines. Most of the passengers rested in their seats during the 10-hour night journey, flying over Africa, the Mediterranean and part of Europe until they reached the Netherlands, aboard the largest twin-jet plane in the world. While they slept, South Africa had warned about a new variant of the coronavirus, which the World Health Organization (WHO) would baptize that same day as omicron. At dawn nothing was the same.
At 11:15 a.m., the commander parked in the area of Amsterdam-Schiphol airport that they pointed out to him. There was another similar device next to them. It was KL598, arrived from Cape Town half an hour earlier. Inside, the Spanish businessman Andrés Sanz, 30, and his partner, the Portuguese biochemist Carolina Pimenta, 28, had just had breakfast. KLM had given them pancakes with chocolate, eggs, and hot and cold drinks. Inside both planes there were a total of 624 passengers who could not disembark. They had no information other than that provided by the pilot. Soon, the news began to pile up on mobiles. They not only came from a risk zone, but from the country considered at that time the first global focus of the disturbing omicron variant.
As the travelers unsuccessfully asked for explanations, the Dutch health authorities evaluated the situation with great nervousness. Amsterdam is one of the main air transfer hubs in Europe, and many of these citizens already had a ticket to go to their final destination. In the midst of uncertainty about the omicron lineage, it was necessary to prevent them from scattering without first checking if any were already infected. Hugo de Jonge, the Dutch Minister for Health, decided that everyone should pass a PCR test. There began a long, hard and confusing journey that has marked those involved.
There were 61 positive cases, the majority vaccinated. Of these, 14 carried the omicron variant. They had also had the vaccine. These results, as declared by the Dutch health authorities, show that it would be appropriate to always ask vaccinated and unvaccinated people for a diagnostic test done 48 hours before the trip to board a plane. It was decided that the group should be quarantined.
A passenger on the Johannesburg flight, who prefers to remain anonymous, explains on the phone that before taking off she saw some people very concerned “about whether the United Kingdom would close its borders or suspend flights, and they began to talk about a new variant. But it was not clear. She came from another African country. His stop in South Africa was a stopover and that was the case, he believes, for many other passengers.
Upon landing in Amsterdam, and while they waited inside the plane, the passenger explains, “people turned on their mobile phones and it was learned that there were canceled flights and quarantines for the new variant.” Without food, for security reasons, and with the commander as the only official contact with the outside world, at around 4.30 pm they were able to disembark. “Hours and hours stuck there taking the remains of cookies that the hostesses had,” he recalls.
The Cape Town group set out earlier on airfield service buses. All were transferred next to a boarding gate. Inside, in a room surrounded by glass and with the exit blocked, a corridor had been prepared on the spot to carry out more than half a thousand PCR tests. It was spacious but stuffy, cold, without proper hygiene. There was hardly any food and few blankets. With inadequate chairs for a long wait, much less to accommodate children and the elderly, they were handed the necessary documentation to be able to follow up on each case later. “It is possible that the safety distance of 1.5 meters could be kept there, but after so long under these conditions, I saw people crowded in search of information who were not even wearing their masks properly,” recalls the passenger. “We got in line at the makeshift test room. That Friday we queued for many hours without having had anything since breakfast, at nine in the morning, on the plane ”.
The Netherlands is one of the places hardest hit by the pandemic and a partial closure of the hospitality industry, the cultural sector and amateur sports is in force. However, the Dutch microbiologist Amrish Baidjoe states: “Despite the fact that compliance with safety regulations has been relaxed among the population and we are at the bottom of Europe in the administration of booster doses, the authorities did not seem to have a possible health emergency of this nature ”. He adds that travel restrictions and the range of required health documents can delay infections by about two weeks, “so quarantine protocols should be harmonized, but that is a political decision, and the airline sector also has its own voice here. ”. It concludes like this: “What counts is tackling the virus once it is in your country, and breaking inequality when vaccinating on a global scale.”
Andrés Sanz, the passenger on the Cape Town flight, also has bitter memories of staying in the airport lounge. “A Japanese man had to fight on the verge of tears to get a blanket for his elderly mother, in a wheelchair,” he says. The day was exhausting, he stresses, and the tests were carried out in full view of the world. The situation even lent itself to moments bordering on the comic. Like when a Dutch passenger sat in the flight attendant’s booth and started answering the phone. “He did it with such propriety that even the airport staff asked him for information. But he was one of us ”, recalls Sanz.
On the less friendly side, the Johannesburg traveler says she felt “abandoned as well as intimidated by the presence of the armed security service.” “We were saved by the camaraderie of the people, who joined,” he says. “As far as I remember, there were people from France, Canada, Greece, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Spain, Norway or Italy, and they acted at times as a collective. I have met people that I keep in touch with, but our well-being was not taken into account. Empathy was lacking ”, he explains. She was able to go to Spain because her CRP was negative, and she was confined at home due to having been exposed to the omicron. On Thursday he had an appointment for a new PCR and received a message from the Dutch health to find out where and how he was. The test came back negative.
Both KLM, Schiphol and Health have apologized for the conditions of the premises, the long wait and the poor infrastructure to accommodate so many people. “The toilet ended up clogging and only one was left free in the women’s bathroom,” says Sanz. PCR results came out late. Sometimes they arrived at dawn, and passengers with a negative result continued on their way. The glass doors were opened, but due to the delay many of them remained at the airport. They had missed their connecting flights and, as ticket sales opened at eight in the morning, they went from the test room to the queue to buy a new ticket.
In their apologies, the health authorities admit that “it is necessary to sit down to learn together from what happened.” They add that they had very little time margin, “and most of the passengers have understood it.” They assure that the facilities already arranged in Schiphol for the PCRs were not used “because it could be the omicron”. Although this new lineage was also present in other places – including the Netherlands – something that experts consider inevitable, it remains to be evaluated if the Amsterdam episode had any effect on the spread of the virus. KLM and Schiphol’s management do not currently plan to award compensation. Once the official excuses have been presented, the suitability of the requirements imposed to fly is now analyzed, since 61 people tested positive. To board both planes, the vaccinated only needed a covid certificate. Those not vaccinated had to carry a PCR that lasted no more than 48 hours, or a 24-hour antigen test. Although KLM ensures that it strictly complies with the rules, what happened will reveal if there were failures in this range of measures.
The case of Andrés Sanz and Carolina Pimenta has been unique. The young man’s test was negative, his partner’s was positive, and they settled together in a hotel near the airport to continue the quarantine. Both suffered the covid in July and had traveled from South Africa with all the documentation in order. They emphasize that there was a lack of information, but that they did not reject the internment. Very moved by what happened, they take turns reporting that they requested a new PCR, suspecting that the first was a false positive. As he did not arrive, although they were told they would do it, last Sunday he left on a bike that was provided at the hotel to buy two antigen tests from a supermarket. The young woman used them and they were negative.
The couple maintain that they left the hotel after a paramedic and a police officer allowed them to do so. Shortly after, Pimenta was arrested on a plane about to take off for Barcelona. They were in jail – they received consular and legal support – “and after spending some terrible hours they told us we were free and without charges,” they say. They believed that the odyssey was over, but it was not. They were taken by ambulance to an infectious hospital where they ended up isolated and the toilet overflowed. They did not change rooms and did not explain why they were there, “when the police had set us free,” they insist. Like the anonymous passenger, they lament the lack of empathy and, in their case, the degrading treatment. “We got in touch with the media because no one was helping us in there. There were anonymous people who, ashamed, sent us flowers to that hospital ”, they say.
What happened is that the Haarlemmermeer City Council – to which the airport belongs – considered that they were reluctant to be confined and an order was issued to arrest Pimenta. “You can’t do PCR every day. The second was this Monday and our information is that they were advised not to leave ”, says the municipal spokeswoman, Petra Faber. “They were a danger to public health because an antigen test did not work for us and they left the country,” he adds. Bart Maes, the couple’s lawyer, wants to know if the municipal order “could be issued in this case, because if not, it is an illegal detention,” he says, on the phone. The second test was also negative in both cases, the prosecutor did not press charges and they were released on Tuesday. They are already in Spain.