**Update: 20/03/20 @ 10:57 UTC – Official statement received from KLM, included below.**
On March 18th, two repatriation flights were unable to land at Guayaquil Airport in Ecuador due to the runway being blocked. If the aircraft in question had flown close enough to the airport, all they would have seen was pick-up trucks and other vehicles dotting the runway that they were supposed to land on. The reason for this? Guayaquil’s mayor was trying to “protect the city from the arrival of people who may have caught coronavirus.”
Repatriation flights affected
According to One Mile at a Time (OMAAT), two repatriation flights, operated by Iberia and KLM flew to Ecuador in order to bring home citizens of their respective countries.
However, as Iberia 6453 from Madrid neared the airport, the crew of the aircraft were informed that they were denied permission to land. Because of this, they had to divert to the nation’s capital of Quito. It was the same for KLM flight 755 from Amsterdam. That plane too had to divert to Quito.
Guayaquil officials have blocked the runway at José Joaquín de Olmedo International Airport in Ecuador to prevent international aircraft from arriving in the country. pic.twitter.com/ZAWmE4rrJ7
— Chris Clarke (@chrisclarkefly) March 18, 2020
The mayor of Guayaquil takes credit for the decision to block the runway and deny landing to the international aircraft. This was apparently done in order to protect the city from people who may have been infected by the coronavirus.
The unfortunate thing was that these were repatriation missions. As such, the flights only had crew on board, without any inbound passengers. OMAAT reports that the aircraft and their respective crews were supposed to spend a night in Guayaquil before returning home with stranded citizens. Of course, whether or not there were passengers on board, the mayor’s actions would seem to be an obvious case of breaking protocol.
The mayor’s actions
According to corporate pilot and the source of the above helicopter footage, Chris Clarke, the Municipality of Guayaquil entered the runway without authorization from the airport authority.
The Aviation Herald reports that Ecuador’s government had agreed to both repatriation flights of Spanish and Dutch citizens. But defending herself, the Mayor claimed that Ecuador’s government had ordered a lockdown and that nobody was allowed to enter or leave Guayaquil. Therefore, sending an aircraft with 11 passengers to enter Guayaquil would violate the law and endanger the local population. The mayor, Cynthia Viteri, assumed responsibility for instructing city vehicles to be driven onto the runway.
Investigating the incident
The government states that the flights had been planned in coordination with the Emergency Operations Committee. This is apparently the only authority that has jurisdiction over the airport and its operation. The country’s Ministry of Transport blames Guayaquil’s mayor’s office for hindering coordinated air traffic within emergency operations and disobeying specific orders issued under emergency conditions.
An investigation has been opened by Ecuador’s prosecution office against the Mayor of Guayaquil. It claims that she had no jurisdiction over the airport and thus endangered the foreign nationals, who had already moved to the airport.
Below is a statement provided by KLM to Simple Flying:
“We flew empty from Amsterdam to Quito in accordance with the travel restrictions of the Ecuadorian government. There we picked up 185 passengers with destination Amsterdam to be repatriated. We wanted to continue to Guyaquil to pick up another 164 passengers for repatriation. However, the Mayor of Guyaquil did not permit landing, despite the fact that no one would leave the aircraft in Guyaquil. So we flew back to Amsterdam from Quito and had to leave those passengers. Fortunately today and Sunday we are allowed to pick up our passengers (Amsterdam-Quito-Guyaquil-Amsterdam),”
All in all, 170 Dutch citizens boarded the Boeing 777-200 in Quito. As for Spanish nationals and the Iberia flight, no numbers were available. However, we know that about 200 Spanish and Dutch citizens in total were waiting for their Iberia and KLM aircraft in Guayaquil.
This appears to be a case of extreme paranoia and over-caution. In most situations around the world, the municipal government has no involvement in the operation of an international airport. Most often this is left to the federal government in conjunction with the country’s civil aviation authority. Therefore, it seems like the mayor’s defense is rather weak with her actions being extremely out of line.
What do you think of this incident? And if you were involved in this situation let us know what it was like from your perspective by leaving a comment!
Simple Flying contacted the airlines involved in this incident for comment. However, no responses were received at the time of publishing.