Up to 85 passengers on just two flights from South Africa could test positive for COVID-19 after arriving in the Netherlands on Friday morning, the Dutch health ministry announced after preliminary test results came back.
So far, tests for 110 of around 600 passengers have been processed with 15 coming back as positive. With a positivity rate of nearly 15 per cent, the Dutch health ministry believes it will find around 85 positive cases despite mandatory pre-departure testing.
“The positive test results will be examined as soon as possible to determine whether this concerns the new worrisome variant, which has since been given the name Omicron variant,” the local health authorities said in a statement.
The passengers on the two flights – one from Johannesburg and one from Cape Town – were stranded on the aircraft for hours after arriving at Amsterdam’s Schipol airport early on Friday morning.
The flights had departed South Africa just as Europe started to react to increasingly worrying news about what is now known as the Omicron variant. The variant may be even more highly transmissible than the Delta variant and could evade existing vaccines.
Omicron has already become the dominant variant in Gauteng province which includes Johannesburg and Pretoria. The variant is also believed to be behind a recent surge in new COVID-19 infections which could be the start of a fourth wave in South Africa.
By the time the flights had landed in the Netherlands, the Dutch government had slapped a travel ban on South Africa. Passengers were not allowed to get off the aircraft until a decision was taken as to what to do with them.
Eventually, health officials decided they would take passengers to a ‘secure’ location within the airport where they would all be tested for COVID-19 despite having already provided pre-departure tests.
Passengers with a positive test result will be taken to hotel quarantine along with their travel companions, while passengers with a negative result will be allowed to self-isolate at home.
However, passengers with a negative result and with an onward connection will be allowed to continue their journeys despite being in close contact with positive cases for many hours.
New York Times health reporter Stephanie Nolen was a passenger onboard the KLM flight from Johannesburg and gave a blow-by-blow account of her experience stranded aboard the plane after its arrival in Amsterdam.
On her Twitter account, Nolen wrote: “So I’m in my 3d hour on a tarmac at Schipol. While my flight from Jo’burg was somewhere over Chad, Europe went into variant panic; by the time we landed, we weren’t allowed off the plane. They won’t even let a catering truck bring us water.”
Nolen was eventually bussed with the other passengers to a hall where she joined a long queue to be tested. “Two hours in a line and I’ve been tested. No word on when we get results or what comes next. Airport authorities have yet to sort the food/water issue and so there is some escalating hysteria among passengers,” Nolen wrote.
After spending the entire day stuck at Schipol airport, Noeln tested negative and was allowed to wait for another flight to Canada where she lives.
In a statement, KLM said it would continue flying to South Africa but would be complying with a stricter protocol which includes a travel ban on non-Dutch and EU citizens.
“KLM is taking the situation very seriously and will continue to prioritise the safety of passengers and crew,” the airline said. “KLM will therefore impose strict on-board safety requirements for passengers and crew. This protocol will be in line with the requirements issued by the respective governments.”
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.