A plane was forced to return to Germany after flying to closed Italian airport

May 26, 2020

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A Eurowings Airbus A320 aircraft suffered an embarrassing turnaround when it unknowingly attempted to fly to a closed airport. The regularly scheduled flight EW9844 departed Dusseldorf (DUS) airport in Germany, bound for Olbia Airport (OLB) on the Italian island of Sardinia on Saturday 23 May.

The only problem? Olbia Airport had closed to all commercial flights some 36 hours earlier because of ongoing coronavirus restrictions. The pilots did not realise they were flying paying passengers to a closed airport until they entered Sardinian airspace and tried to land.

CNN reports the pilots then considered landing at nearby Cagliari Airport (CAG) on the same island, though instead decided to return to Dusseldorf. In all, the two passengers on board returned to the same place from which they had commenced their journey — more than four hours earlier.

The flight path of EW9844 on 23 May 2020. (Image courtesy of FlightRadar24)

The flight raises numerous questions regarding just how such an embarrassing experience could have occurred, especially given the planning and communication pilots undertake as they operate each flight. TPG’s resident pilot Charlie Page, who flew the same Airbus A320 aircraft type for 10 years, says this situation is not as impossible as you might think.

He explained that although each flight has an approved flight path that is submitted to Eurocontrol before each flight, this doesn’t check the operational status of an airport. In the case of this Eurowings flight, the plane would have been under the control of Italian ATC as it entered Italian airspace, though these centralised controllers may not have been aware of the operational status of every Italian airport.

Related: Behind the scenes: What goes on in the flight deck during a diversion?

Once closer to their destination, pilots would make contact with the airport they planned to land at, and it would have been at this time when the pilots would have finally realised Olbia Airport was not operational.

The flight path of EW9844 on 23 May 2020. (Image courtesy of FlightRadar24)

So should the airport have done more to make foreign pilots aware of this closure? Well, it did.

The airport operators issued what Charlie Page says is a “Notice to Airmen”, abbreviated as a NOTAM, as the airport was closed two days earlier. This described the airport as being closed to commercial flights, and pilots would usually check all relevant NOTAMs before each flight. In this instance, they may not have checked this NOTAM properly, though Charlie notes these short memos can be so poorly worded that they can easily be misunderstood and can often be inaccurate — so they’re not always followed to the letter.

According to a spokesperson for the airline, the error was the result of “a misunderstanding in the consolidation of the relevant flight information”.

Olbia Airport remains closed until at least 2 June.

Featured image by Bodo Marks/picture alliance via Getty Images

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