KLM flight to Mexico sent back by U.S. Homeland Security, inquiry follows

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Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The plane was forced to return to its port of origin, Amsterdam Schiphol Airport — in the Netherlands.
2003 file photo

Everything seemed alright on KLM Royal Dutch Airlines 747 flight KL685 en-route to Mexico, Friday, April 8 — until the captain hailed U.S. flight control for permission to pass over U.S. airspace and permission was denied. Little did he know, the names of two passengers on board had been linked by Mexican authorities to a U.S. Department of Homeland Security watchlist, who then contacted U.S. authorities.

Attempts were made to divert and have the passengers disembark in Canada, but ultimately this failed — and left without an alternative route, the plane was forced to return to its port of origin, Amsterdam Schiphol Airport — in the Netherlands.

Flight KL685 carried 287 passengers and 15 horses, all of whom had to put up with a day's delay, and among the passengers, Frederic Hennekens, a lawyer from Antwerp. Hennekens later made an appearance on the Dutch behind-the-news television show NOVA, offering his personal experience on the matter.

"Just before the plane took off I saw the Marechaussee enter, and a bit later arrest one man. Later I heard from a Telegraaf journalist that someone else had been apprehended at the gates." #1

The KLM at first denied this had happened, but later affirmed this when journalists pressed the matter at Hennekens' request.

Hennekens said the flight went well initially, they were ahead of schedule by an hour at the time the captain announced that entry to U.S. airspace had been denied. No reason was given to the pilots, and as a consequence the passengers were left in the dark as well, being told only that they had to turn back to Amsterdam.

Three officials in all — including one of the cockpit crew and a ticketing officer upon return — told Hennekens that the passenger list given to the U.S. authorities had been checked too late. This is in contrast to KLM's official response Monday, April 11.

"According to the treaty between Europe and the United States only passengers 'to and from' the US are subject to checks. If that also applies to planes passing over U.S. soil is a matter of interpretation." #1
"KLM did not give passenger details to the U.S. authorities, but did to the Mexican authorities. How the Americans got hold of that list, is unclear."
U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security seal

NOVA's correspondent Twan Huys reported from New York, having spoken with the United States Department of Homeland Security. He said that according to the department the first warning that something was wrong with the plane did not originate with the pilots or the KLM, it came from the Mexican officials, per the U.S.-Mexican treaty on passenger lists. According to the report the department also said that the KLM is aware of this "passengers watchlist" or "no-fly list", and blame the airline for not checking the list properly at Schiphol Airport.

The two people on the list who were denied entry were not apprehended on their return to Europe in either the United Kingdom or The Netherlands. The Dutch government said that these people were not on the European version of the "no-fly list," and as such were left alone. Inquiries are presently being held by both Dutch and American governments, trying to ascertain where communication broke down, and how to avoid situations like this in the future.

Sources

  1. Statements have been translated from Dutch as literally as possible.
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