The bitter joke this week among followers of social media in Egypt was the sudden, extremely irresponsible and bizarre decision by British Airways (BA) to suspend flights to Cairo for seven days.
Among the most popular comments made was one noting that while the British government was dragged into a dangerous escalation with Iran after the exchange of seizing oil tankers in Gibraltar and the Strait of Hormuz, threatening Tehran with “serious consequences”, their reaction was to suspend flights to Cairo.
On Saturday, the British company claimed in a brief statement that, “We constantly review our security arrangements at all our airports around the world, and have suspended flights to Cairo for seven days as a precaution to allow for further assessment.” However, only a day later, Sherif Barsoum, BA regional director, stated: “We have no concerns over security at Cairo Airport. The decision is purely related to the airlines.” Does this make any sense?
For a country like Egypt, where tourism is a prime source for much needed revenues, such announcements should not be taken unilaterally by an airline company without prior consultation with the concerned local authorities.
Indeed, all airlines operating in Egypt are entitled to guarantee the safety of their passengers and fleet of airplanes, which is a main concern for the Egyptian government before any other parties. Yet, it doesn’t take much thinking to expect that such decisions do not only affect the concerned companies.
BA must have certainly considered that a brief statement issued out of the blue would clearly have negative repercussions on the entire tourism industry in Egypt, investments and the entire economy. That’s certainly not an issue to be taken lightly by Egypt, or any other country.
Worse, shortly after the BA statement, Germany’s Lufthansa announced a similar measure. However, after clarifications were made by Egyptian civil aviation authorities, the German airliner immediately reversed their decision that only lasted for a few hours.
Confirming that there were no serious security threats in Egypt, hundreds of other airlines, including major companies in Europe and the United States, maintained their regular, scheduled flights to Egypt.
However, this fact did not prevent enemies of Egypt, who survive on spreading false news about its security through media outlets known for lacking any credibility, from spreading false rumours that other US and Canadian airlines had taken similar decisions to suspend flights to Egypt, or even that Britain was about to evacuate all British nationals residing in Egypt.
Thus, the BA decision raised the eyebrows of many unable to comprehend why such a reckless decision was made.
Following the tragic crash of the Russian plane over Sharm El-Sheikh in 2015, Egypt has exerted all possible effort to improve security at Egyptian airports.
After spending hundreds of millions of dollars to provide airports with the latest security technologies, Russia, as well as the airlines of other countries, including BA, recognised that major progress has been made, and resumed their flights to Cairo International Airport.
Meanwhile, talks remain ongoing with Russia to resume flights to the popular Red Sea resorts of Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada.
The Russian delay, along with the British, however, did not prevent tens of thousands of their citizens from spending their holidays at those outstanding resorts by flying transit from other nearby countries, recognising that Egypt is indeed a safe place to visit.
On Sunday, Minister of Civil Aviation Younis Al-Masry met with the British ambassador to Egypt to discuss the unjustified decision by BA to suspend flights to Cairo.
The minister expressed his dismay to the ambassador over the unilateral decision by BA. Al-Masry and the British ambassador agreed to continue joint efforts to resolve the issue as soon as possible, and also agreed to continue to cooperate in order to ensure the safety of passengers, according to official statements.
While the British government insisted that it did not advise the BA decision, and that it was made by BA alone, many Egyptians found this argument difficult to believe.
Intelligence information that led BA to suspend its flights for a week certainly did not come from its private agents, especially that the British company had only concluded a regular review of security measures at Cairo airport hardly a day before the awkward statement was made on Saturday.
After such a periodic review, there were no indications whatsoever that there were any shortcomings in security at Cairo International Airport.
Egypt is the largest Arab country, and among the largest in Africa, and cannot be treated by a British company as one of its subsidiaries.
BA certainly owes Egypt an apology, and a clear pledge that such decisions will not be made in the future without consultation first with local authorities.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: BA must apologise