Paula Zimmerman first came across the news of a new, worrying coronavirus variant while idly scrolling on her phone in the departures lounge at Cape Town International Airport on November 25. “There was no name, and we didn’t know anything about it being more or less contagious,” she recalls. Zimmerman turned to her husband and said the couple were lucky to be getting on their flight out of South Africa to the Netherlands, due to touch down at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport the following morning, November 26. The flight went smoothly, and as night turned to day Zimmerman and her fellow passengers prepared for a weekend in the Netherlands. KLM’s KL598 flight from Cape Town to Amsterdam arrived at 10:35 am on November 26—20 minutes ahead of schedule.
But rather than taxiing to its normal gate, the plane took a different route. “They drove us to a remote section of the airport,” says Paul Rebel, a businessman who was also on the flight and had traveled to the Netherlands for his mother’s funeral. The pilot’s voice crackled over the plane’s loudspeaker: Nobody could get off the plane, because the Dutch government had put a travel ban on South Africa. The ban was due to take effect from midday that day—in a little under 90 minutes. Flight KL598 was stuck in a strange, variant limbo.
“I think they purposely held us in the aeroplane until after 12 o’clock, then released us to the airport,” says Rebel. A KLM spokesperson says the airline had no choice but to comply with rules set out by the Dutch government and the GGD, the Dutch health service. “Passengers were not allowed to disembark before there was permission from the Dutch government and the GGD,” the spokesperson says. “The only thing we could do was comply and hold the passengers.”
Flight KL598 and one other, flight KL592 from Johannesburg to Schiphol, had flown through an invisible wall. As Zimmerman, Rebel, and their fellow passengers were flying north toward the Netherlands, South African health authorities alerted the world to a potentially dangerous new variant—one we now know of as Omicron. And in response, much of the world had closed its borders—inadvertently leaving 624 people stranded on the tarmac. While flying over Europe, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, had proposed pulling an “emergency brake to stop air travel” from southern Africa entering Europe. Then the two planes landed.
It might now have a name, but there is still so much we don’t know about Omicron. Despite that, much of the world, terrified by the potential of a more transmissible, vaccine-dodging variant, quickly moved to try to stop it from spreading. The European Union, United Kingdom, and United States imposed travel bans on several southern African countries. Israel and Japan closed their borders to all foreigners. Governments and scientists are still waiting to see what Omicron does to our planet and our population.
“I was a little shocked at first, because I thought it had to do something with terrorism,” says Zimmerman. “The captain explained that it was about this new variant and that the government didn’t want us to get into the country. Then I thought, ‘Well, you know, it’ll be fine. I guess.’ They said it would take about half an hour, and we probably would get off and get tested.”