Balloons, relief at Dutch airport as tourists beat variant shutdown
Relieved passengers on a flight from South Africa streamed into Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport Saturday, in stark contrast to the previous day when fears about a new Covid-19 variant sparked chaos.
Smiling relatives waiting with balloons and flowers greeted travellers from KLM’s only flight from Johannesburg, who reached the Netherlands despite a growing international shutdown to curb the new omicron strain.
The mood was very different the previous day, when passengers aboard two flights spent hours mired at Schiphol while tests revealed that 61 out of the 600 passengers had coronavirus, with some possibly having the new Omicron strain which has governments worldwide worried.
“We were scared of having to go back into quarantine,” said Mariam van der Veen, an air hostess who was on holiday in South Africa with her husband Alexander.
“The funny thing is… nobody said anything to us,” a visibly relieved Van der Veen, 58, told AFP.
Her husband added: “We heard there was a new variant and maybe it would be impossible to go back after the weekend. So we decided not to wait (in South Africa) under these circumstances and booked a flight home.”
– ‘Variant panic’ –
In all 161 people made it back Saturday aboard the sole KLM flight from Johannesburg, blending seamlessly with other arrivals from Istanbul and Atlanta as they plucked luggage from the conveyor belts.
At least 107 other passengers were stopped from boarding as they did not comply with new Dutch government rules hastily announced on Friday.
These bar entry to all passengers from southern African countries except for Dutch and EU residents who can show a negative Covid test taken within 24 hours of boarding the plane.
“Each person is dealing with an individual situation. We cannot say when these people will be able to return,” KLM spokesman Remco Rous told AFP.
Since the emergence of the new strain, one country after another has banned flights from southern Africa in what New York Times global health reporter Stephanie Nolen — who was on one of the flights to Schiphol — termed “variant panic.”
On Friday passengers arriving at Schiphol had to endure hours of waiting — first on the plane and then in a cramped arrival hall “were people were breathing on each other” and many people failed to wear face masks, Nolen tweeted.
Passenger Paula Zimmerman who documented her night via videos posted on Twitter and finally tested negative, said the “organisation was terrible unfortunately. Lessons to be learned for future.”
– ‘Flying first class’ –
Dutch health authorities said on Saturday that some of the 61 who tested Covid positive and are now in hotel quarantine “probably” had the new variant.
“This was an extraordinary situation, unique, because the measures changed while people were on the plane,” said Stefan Donker, spokesman for Schiphol.
“Coronavirus is something unexpected and it proves to be always more unexpected,” he told AFP.
While passengers who missed connecting flights because of Friday evening’s hold-up were fuming, those arriving on Saturday had a much smoother transit — and those whose destination was the Netherlands were hugely relieved.
“We were all tense and little bit worried,” said Rita Kizito, a professor teaching in the Netherlands, but things went “surprisingly very smoothly.”
Kizito said she was let through border controls with health officials accepting her South African test results.
And, a plane that’s not full had added benefits.
“For the first time in economy class I was able to stretch my legs, because I had full three seats to myself,” she said.
“I thought, my goodness, I’m flying first class today!”