Law enforcement agencies are investigating the causes of one of the most unusual incidents ever seen at a Spanish airport. On Friday, shortly after a flight out of Casablanca in Morocco made an emergency landing on the Balearic Island of Mallorca, 21 passengers fled the plane, scattered across the runways and were seen jumping over the facility’s fences. All activity at the airport was halted for three hours, causing numerous flight delays at the busy hub.
The Air Arabia aircraft had made an emergency landing in Palma for medical reasons that investigators now suspect may have been deliberately triggered in order to force the plane to land in Spain rather than continue on its way to Istanbul.
The police have arrested 12 people so far, including the individual who required medical assistance, a traveling companion and a passenger who assaulted a Civil Guard officer inside the plane. The man who supposedly fell ill was arrested in Spain in 2020 for criminal damage and contempt of court. Another 12 people out of a total of 150 passengers have gone missing, most of them Moroccan nationals except for one Palestinian. Several arrests were made in Sa Cabana, located 13 kilometers from the airport. Some people were found in a disoriented state near the facility, while others were hiding from the police.
Investigators are trying to determine whether the missing passengers made an improvised bid to enter Spain illegally following the unexpected situation, or whether the whole thing was planned.
The police are probing a social media post made on Facebook on July 17 requesting 40 volunteers to participate in a plan to simulate a medical emergency on a plane and force it to land in Spain. The message, posted by a Moroccan national, has since been deleted from a Facebook group called Brooklyn, but numerous users have shared screenshots of the text.
Written in Arabic, the message explained that volunteers who joined the plan would board a Turkey-bound plane “that goes through Spain” and that one of them should “pretend to be sick” at that point. Other members of the plan were urged to “start screaming” to make sure the plane would be forced down, at which point everyone would have a chance to escape.
The government’s delegate in the Balearic Islands, Aina Calvo, said that detainees have made contradictory statements to the police. According to sources familiar with the investigation, some of these individuals said that they panicked at the time of the emergency and simply sought to get away, while others are suspected of deliberately trying to remain in Spain.
“Nothing can be ruled out; they’d been at the airport for quite a while after the ill passenger was evacuated, there are statements pointing in different directions, and we cannot at this time confidently say why 21 people decided to rush off across the runways,” said Calvo.
The government representative added that the medical report “shows evidence that the passenger was not feeling well” but that it is not impossible that he deliberately triggered his own diabetic episode to force the plane down. Investigators are also looking into whether the escaped passengers all knew each other prior to boarding the flight.
The Turkey-bound plane had taken off from Casablanca after 6pm on Friday. Shortly before 7pm, the captain was warned about a health emergency on board by the crew and requested permission to land from air traffic controllers at Palma Son Sant Joan airport. The man in question was supposedly “suffering a diabetic crisis,” according to police sources.
The aircraft landed at 7pm and an ambulance was rushed over. The crew entered the plane via stairs, which is when the group left the aircraft and made a run for the fence surrounding the airport. The rest of the passengers remained on board.
The man who was supposedly sick was taken with a companion to Son Llàtzer hospital in the Balearic capital, where he was later discharged after no medical issues were detected. Officers from the National Police arrested him on offenses related to illegal immigration and the so-called “foreigners act.”
Spain’s airport authority AENA decided to halt all activity due to the dangerous situation, in a decision that affected around 50 flights that were either cancelled or rerouted. Activity was resumed at around 11.30pm.
For now, the detainees remain in police custody in Palma and are under deportation orders, although judicial authorities could still charge them with violations of air safety rules, which would involve a transfer to a migrant holding center on Spanish territory.
Moroccan citizens do not need a visa to enter and remain in Turkey for fewer than 90 days. But obtaining a visa for the Schengen area, of which Spain is a member, involves paperwork such as proof of financial means and travel health insurance.
It emerged on Monday that the public prosecutor in the Balearic Islands is considering accusing the passengers involved in the incident of sedition. Sources from the prosecutor’s office have confirmed to EL PAÍS that it has consulted with the Prosecutor General’s Office as to how it should approach the case.