Turkey Blocks Plane Evacuating Cruise Passengers Amid COVID-19 Virus Fears

Turkey Blocks Plane Evacuating Cruise Passengers Amid COVID-19 Virus Fears
A helicopter prepares to land near the Westerdam cruise ship in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, on Feb. 19, 2020. (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP via Getty Images)
Isabel van Brugen

A plane carrying Westerdam cruise evacuees was left stranded at an airport in Karachi, Pakistan, on Feb. 20 after Turkey denied it landing permission due to fears of the novel coronavirus, according to reports.

The Turkish airliner chartered to Istanbul by Holland America Line—the owner of the Westerdam cruise ship —was forced to turn around mid-flight after Turkey barred the aircraft from landing at its Istanbul airport, reported ABC News.

All 268 passengers, including American and Canadian citizens, were left stranded for hours on an airport tarmac in Karachi, a source familiar with the situation told the news outlet.

Although the passengers had tested negative for the new coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, the flight was “unexpectedly instructed by Turkish officials to turn around midway through its journey,” Holland America told ABC News in a statement.

Turkish Airlines Flight 3441 reportedly told air traffic control that it needed to land as it had a “technical issue” while in the skies over Iran. It then made an unscheduled landing at Karachi International Airport at roughly 9:50 p.m. local time, a Pakistani civil aviation official said.

By 2:09 a.m., local time, the plane took off again to Amsterdam, according to flight data and Holland America.

Everyone onboard the plane had been cleared by the Cambodian Ministry of Health with a letter approved by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Cambodia office.

Five countries rejected the Westerdam cruise ship before it was allowed to dock in Cambodia last week. However, an 83-year-old American Westerdam passenger who flew to Malaysia tested positive for the new coronavirus upon her arrival at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Saturday, Feb. 15.

Her diagnosis came after authorities initially cleared all Westerdam cruise ship passengers in Cambodia. She was the first from the ship, which was carrying 1,455 passengers and 802 crew, to test positive.

Her husband, 85, who is also a U.S. citizen, tested negative despite showing symptoms of the virus. The woman is in stable condition and is in isolation at Sungai Buloh Hospital while her husband is still receiving treatment and is being monitored, Malaysia’s health ministry said.

All passengers remaining in Cambodia tested negative for the virus, the country’s Ministry of Health said Wednesday.

The Westerdam departed Hong Kong on a two-week cruise to Yokohama, Japan. Holland America said passengers on the Westerdam would be offered a full refund and that flights back home will also be covered by the firm.

Worries about the new virus have mounted because of fears that with no natural immunity among the world’s population, it could spread to infect millions if unchecked.

CDC and WHO websites give an estimated incubation period for the virus of up to 14 days. However, the initial results from Feb. 9 study by Chinese doctors found that the incubation for the disease could be as long as 24 days. The results have yet to be corroborated.