Omicron variant found on flights reveals gaps in Covid-19 travel rules

Of around 600 passengers on the two flights, 61 tested positive for Covid-19 after being taken off the planes, held for hours in an isolated part of Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport and tested. Sunday morning, Dutch health authorities said that at least 13 were confirmed as the Omicron variant, a new strain first identified in southern Africa.

Many of the travelers on the two flights had been required to show proof of a negative PCR test to board. But many others weren’t. The European Union has rolled out a digital passport-like document that allows citizens, residents and others to forgo a preflight test if they are fully vaccinated.

“It is reckless to insist that those that are fully vaccinated don’t need a PCR test,” said Talitha Smith, a 65-year-old marketing manager, who was traveling with her husband. Because she is South African, she had to be tested before boarding. “Being vaccinated does not prevent you from carrying the disease.”

A spokesman for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, which operated both flights, said the carrier followed government guidance and that the health authorities were responsible for disembarking and testing procedures. Dutch health authorities said they recognized the frustration among passengers, but that they had acted in the interest of public health in an unusual situation.

It isn’t clear how many of those who tested positive had been tested before boarding, or how many were fully vaccinated. Even with a negative test ahead of a flight, a passenger can pick up an infection afterward, including during the journey itself.

The pre-board testing discrepancy is the result of a still-loosely coordinated approach by governments and the aviation industry to setting up and enforcing rules to keep fliers safe from Covid-19 and limit the spread of the disease. After governments severely curtailed travel last spring to contain the initial outbreak, they have frequently tweaked those rules.

In many parts of the world, particularly in parts of Asia, governments are still enforcing draconian measures, including long, mandatory isolation periods for all travelers, regardless of a positive test. That has made it difficult for fliers and airlines.

British Airways, a unit of International Consolidated Airlines Group SA, for instance, said Sunday it had temporarily halted flights to Hong Kong after a crew member tested positive for Covid-19, forcing the entire crew to quarantine at a state facility, per government rules. The airline said it was reviewing how to continue operating and staffing the route after the incident.

More recently, amid vaccine rollouts in many places, other governments have mostly been easing restrictions. Earlier this month, for instance, the U.S. reopened its border to citizens from the EU and other nationalities. The U.S. requires any traveler inbound to show proof of a negative test, citizen or not, and vaccinated or not, before boarding.

Now, governments are tightening up again. Late last week, the U.S., EU and many other governments started restricting flights from a handful of countries in southern Africa, where the new variant was first identified. Israel on Sunday banned all noncitizens from traveling to the country.

As the Dutch government was completing its plans for its new ban, the two KLM flights—one from Cape Town and one from Johannesburg—were already en route to Schiphol. Part of the new measures require pre-departure PCR testing for any passenger coming from the southern Africa region.

Ms. Smith, on the flight from Cape Town and planning to transfer to a flight to Toronto, said she realized something was wrong when the plane landed around 10:30 a.m. local time and took a sharp turn before coming to a halt far from the main terminal. The captain told passengers he had been requested to park the plane and sit tight, and then said the delay was related to the new coronavirus variant.

Passengers on that flight spent the next four hours on the tarmac. They were then taken in groups by bus to a building that appeared otherwise out of use. Health officials at the building began registering everyone for their tests. Passengers at times grouped closely to each other as they pushed to get their tests. Ms. Smith and her husband were tested after two hours in line.

Officials promised warm food, but it never came, passengers said. Some sandwiches and water were set out on tables.

Hours later, passengers began receiving results of tests by email. Ms. Smith lay on a sleeping bag, distributed by border police, on the floor next to her husband. They took turns refreshing their emails to see if results had arrived.

Passengers who tested positive were taken away to isolate in nearby hotels. Those who had tested positive didn’t look ill and were shocked, Ms. Smith said. Passengers who had tested negative before the flight became anxious that they could have been exposed on the plane, and they scrutinized whether those who were taken away were neighbors from the flight.

Those who received negative results—including, around 4 a.m., the Smiths—were taken to the main terminal and released. The couple set off in search of their luggage, which they tracked down after a couple of hours, and then went to stay with their daughter near Amsterdam.

About 400 of the roughly 600 passengers on board the two flights were due to continue onto connecting flights. Some passengers who were connecting to destinations outside the EU didn’t have visa-entry rights to leave the airport and were forced to spend the night in the airport terminal. Other passengers who tested negative, and could leave the airport, were booked into hotels where there was availability, according to a KLM spokesman.

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