Plane evacuating cruise passengers re-routed after Turkey denies landing permission amid novel coronavirus fears

TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP via Getty Images(KARACHI, Pakistan) — A Turkish airliner chartered by Holland America cruise line to evacuate passengers from its Westerdam cruise was abruptly turned around mid-flight Thursday, according to flight data and multiple sources.

The flight was carrying 283 citizens from multiple countries, including the United States, when it was forced to land in Karachi, Pakistan, instead of Istanbul, Turkey — its original destination.

A source familiar with the situation told ABC News the last-minute landing was because the Turkish government barred the aircraft from landing in the country over concerns about the novel coronavirus — setting off an international fiasco.

Holland America confirmed the incident, saying in a statement to ABC News that the chartered flight “was unexpectedly instructed by Turkish officials to turn around midway through its journey,” even though passengers on board had been cleared by the Cambodian Ministry of Health with a letter approved by the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s office in Cambodia, where the ship has been docked.

An 83-year old American woman who disembarked the cruise ship in Cambodia last weekend and flew to Malaysia was confirmed to have the virus that has infected nearly 76,000 people and killed over 2,100, the vast majority in China where it originated. She and her husband have been hospitalized in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, according to U.S. officials, setting off concerns that others on board the ship may have the virus, formally known as COVID-19.

But the Cambodian Ministry of Health announced Wednesday that all 781 Westerdam passengers remaining in the country had tested negative for COVID-19. The remaining passengers disembarked from the ship, while those who had stayed in hotels in the area were permitted to begin leaving Cambodia and fly home.

“Everyone is healthy, and now you just saw a number of buses leave,” said Orlando Ashford, president of Holland America, which owns the Westerdam. “We expect everybody to be on the way home in the next two days.”

Among those trips home, Holland America chartered the Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul, where passengers would be able to travel onward to their final destination.

While in the skies over Iran, Turkish Airlines Flight 3441 informed air traffic control that it had a “technical issue” and needed to land. An hour and 40 minutes later, it made a previously unscheduled landing at Karachi International Airport at around 9:50 p.m., local time, according to a Pakistani civil aviation official.

Before landing, air traffic control told the pilot, “No assistance is required upon arrival,” according to a recording of the exchange.

The emergency landing and rescinded invitation to Istanbul forced officials to scramble to find a new location for the plane to land. Consular officials from foreign countries in Karachi were awoken, according to the source, as they and other officials pressed the Turkish government to change its mind and then searched for a new location for the aircraft to land.

The aircraft took off again at 2:09 a.m., local time, and was heading to Amsterdam, according to flight data.

Holland America, Turkish Airlines and the Turkish embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to questions on Thursday.

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