Oops: Eurowings Flies To Closed Airport, Forced To Turn Around

Filed Under: Other Airlines

Eurowings attempted to operate their first scheduled flight to Sardinia on Saturday since the crisis started, and that didn’t exactly end well

Eurowings flies to Olbia, turns around

Eurowings is a low cost carrier in the Lufthansa Group. Early on Saturday morning a Eurowings Airbus A320 was scheduled to operate flight 9844 from Dusseldorf to Olbia, a 730 mile flight.

The flight departed on-time, and within 90 minutes was approaching Olbia. This is the point at which the pilots learned that the airport was closed to commercial traffic. The plane entered a holding pattern for 40 minutes in hopes of getting permission to land, but that wasn’t granted.

While the plane could have diverted to another Italian airport, the crew made the decision to turn around, and the Eurowings plane flew all the way back to Dusseldorf. The total flight time was 4hr10min. The passengers and crew were back where they started, with nothing more than burned fuel to show for it.

On the plus side, not that many people were inconvenienced, as the plane had only two passengers onboard.

How exactly did this happen?!

How did Eurowings end up trying to operate a flight to a closed airport? As reported by Corriere Della Sera, the airline says an investigation is taking place.

For what it’s worth, on Thursday afternoon (a bit over 36 hours before the flight) a notice to airmen (NOTAM) was issued that should have made it clear that commercial flights weren’t allowed to the airport:

COVID-19. AERODROME CLOSED TO COMMERCIAL AVIATION TRAFFIC IN COMPLIANCE WITH REGIONE SARDEGNA DECREE 23 OF 17TH MAY 2020. RMK: GENERAL AVIATION ACTIVITY AND COMMERCIAL AVIATION ACTIVITY ON DEMAND (AEROTAXI) WITH AIRCRAFT HAVING MAXIMUM CABIN CONFIGURATION EQUAL OR LESS THAN 19 SEATS ARE APPROVED IN COMPLIANCE WITH MINISTRY OF INFRASTRUCTURE AND TRANSPORTATION DECREE 207/2020 AND REGIONE SARDEGNA DECREE 23 OF 17TH MAY 2020.

The one potential source of confusion is that Italy’s Ministry of Infrastructure and Transportation on May 17 established the reopening of Olbia Airport, but within hours a regional ordinance ordered the airport to be closed to commercial traffic through at least June 2, 2020.

Obviously there were some oversights here by more than one party:

  • How was the airline selling tickets?
  • Why didn’t the pilots notice the NOTAM?
  • How was a flight plan approved for service to a closed airport?
  • While it’s presumably not ATC’s fault, did no one along the way inform the pilots they were flying to closed airport?

Bottom line

A Eurowings flight scheduled to operate from Dusseldorf to Olbia ended up diverting back to Germany, causing a four hour flight to nowhere. Obviously it can be a confusing time right now with so many different rules, but one still has to wonder how exactly this happened…

Comments
  1. As a pilot, I’m generally concerned that these pilots failed to take note of all applicable NOTAMS.

  2. Some interesting data points.
    1, They had enough fuel. Either they were not skimping on weight or they planned on not refueling in Italy.
    2, The airport was not closed, it was closed to commercial flights of this number of seats, that is how it happened.
    3, I am left wondering, could they have misunderstood the 19 pax limit?

  3. NOTAMs are a mess. The system is outdated, and important information can easily be overlooked due to the extreme volume of NOTAMs many with difficult readability. Just look at MH17.

    The whole system should be reworked.

  4. When going thru withdrawals from flying (the first year of my life I’m not traveling internationally), I would have happy with a flight to nowhere!

  5. …well…they improved compared to when a heavily delayed Eurowings flight from Cologne to Seattle was already over Iceland when it had to turn back to Germany because the U.S. Customs & Border Protection at SEA was already closed.
    The sunday flight CGN-SEA was cancelled, passengers were rebooked to the monday flight which was then delayed by more than 8 hrs.
    (that was in september 2018)

  6. I mean at this point I would’ve happily been one of those pax as I’d at least have gotten to fly.

    Actually had a BA Holiday booked in Sardinia starting June 3rd however we canx it 4 days before Italy decided to say they’d be reopening on….. …the 3rd June!

    Pilots, ATC, flight planning I mean everybody messed up there but hey least that’s 4hrs of flight time the pilots have taken out of their requirements eh

  7. Answers to some of Ben’s questions in no particular order:

    1. The ticket sales issues is the most pressing question.
    2. NOTAM system is a mess, and probably more so in Europe where you have several different countries involved. Heck, this has happened in the US too. A few years ago, UA dispatched a flight to a closed airport and the flight had to divert.
    3-4. The premise of the question is flawed. Most of the time airports don’t close, as was the case here. In any event, this stuff is *never* on ATC. It’s not their job and they don’t have all of the information about the flight necessary to enforce these types of things, so they stay out of it altogether. The other thing with flight plan “approvals” is that the term “approval” in practice is rather loose. Almost anything gets “approved”, and if there are problems with the flight plan, it gets amended enroute. Basically, what ATC is concerned about in “approving” a flight plan is really looking at portions of the plan crossing facility boundaries. There’s usually “Letters of Agreement” that dictate how aircraft should be handled when transiting facilities, and that’s what ATC cares about.

    This bit of fun is between the flight crew and the dispatcher.

  8. Shouldn’t the ATC receive destination info on the flight? Just asking. But let’s assume that humans do mistakes as in this case, to oversee the NOTAM. Still, you have two international airports at a short distance. Why the pilots didn’t divert to one of these? I’m sure the passengers would have preferred to fly in one of these. Or the airline has taken the decision? Regardless of the mistake it’s a bit weird of not diverting to a nearby airport.

  9. Shoot first and ask questions later.
    Erm, I mean fly first and ask questions later, of course.

  10. That NOTAM is definitely not clear. And Lucky’s question about how was a flight plan like that “approved”. In my experience as a private pilot, there is no “approval process” for a flight plan. You simply submit it and share it. It’s a record of your plans. And we often change our flight plans mid-air for all sorts of reasons. I do not know how it works in Europe or in commercial aviation, but I don’t think that there is a central authority that approves flight plans, and even if there was, flight plans change mid flight all the time, for all kinds of reasons.

  11. Perhaps the pilots were women, and thought the NOTAM did not apply to them? A gender-neutral NOTAP (P = people) may have worked better.

  12. It’s cheaper to return to their POO.
    If they would have diverted, they had to organize a charter to the passengers’ final destination, most likely accommodation, too, including extra fees at an airport, etc. mind you the plane would have to return to DUS either way. So, flying back to DUS and rebooking the TWO passengers was the cheaper and only reasonable option.

  13. @Abe

    It ain’t ATC’s fault because ATC’s job is to make sure two planes don’t occupy the same point in space at precisely the same time. That’s how.

    ATC gives out IFR clearances, but all that basically says is that IFR separation will be provided to whatever the clearance limit is (most of the time it’s the destination.) The route itself is just a guess, even when it gets issued at the point of origin — there’s all kinds of stuff that can cause “amendments” long after the flight has taken off.

    Put it this way. A big jet can file a flight plan to airport with a really tiny runway, and ATC will clear the flight for it. If the runway is too short and the pilot slides off the runway, that’s not ATC’s problem in the slightest. That’s on the pilot and dispatcher for being dopes. Same is true in this case… ATC did their job by making sure the plane didn’t hit anything on the way over.

  14. @Dan, thanks. Not a pilot and just know cursory information about flying and piloting so it’s interesting to learn.

  15. To those suggesting that they should have diverted to Cagliari or Alghero, why are you so sure that they would have been open, while Olbia was closed? The Notam refers to a Sardinian ministry decree. I may be wrong, but I expect there’s a very strong possibility that this would also apply to other airports on the island too.
    If these diversion options had been available, do you really not think they would have considered them?

  16. That was a nice wayto burn 8’800 kg of fuel (2100 kg/h) for 8 people ( 2 passengers + 2 pilotes + 4 crew members). That flight was 2700 km.
    So it was a flight with a “litres per 100 km per passenger” of 50 !!! (instead of about 2.9)

  17. I’ve never thought about this before: Under normal conditions, do pilots of regularly-scheduled commercial flights assume an airport will be open unless they hear otherwise? Of course pilots don’t call the airport before setting out, but is there any other step?

  18. @Harold

    It’s a bit more nuanced than that. “Closing airports” isn’t usually a thing, and is most often a euphemism, much like “sat on the runway” (you’re only going to “sit on the runway” for two minutes max, anywhere else isn’t the *runway*). What is common is closing runways for one reason or another. Unless a NOTAM is published indicating a closed runway, then it is safe (and legal) to assume that the runway is open and available for use during the airport’s otherwise published operating hours.

    What begs the question is what happens when all of an airport’s runways are NOTAM’d closed. Is the airport still “open”? Presumably, yes, because rotary wing operations can still use it. This isn’t pedantic, BTW. There was an issue at BUF a couple of years ago where runway was NOTAM’d closed for like three months straight. But there was one night where they closed the other runway for like 8 hours overnight. UA had a scheduled flight that was supposed to arrive before the second runway closed, but it got delayed. The flight departed and dispatch/pilots forgot to check the NOTAMs so the flight had to divert.

    Usually, when an airport won’t have any available runways (functionally closed to fixed wing aircraft) the regular operators are informed of this very clearly way in advance. These things shouldn’t sneak up on people, but they do, partly because the NOTAM system sucks donkey balls.

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