Without issuing prior notice, British Airways (BA) suspended its flights to Cairo for a week on Saturday.
The Egyptian authorities were not informed of the decision, which BA said was taken as a “precaution to allow for further assessment”. Passengers ready to board a BA plane from London’s Heathrow Airport to Cairo on Saturday were told that their flight was cancelled and that there were no alternative flights for a week.
The British company provided no further details regarding its security concerns. However, Sherif Barsoum, BA’s regional director, was reported by the US network ABC News as having said that “we have no concerns over security at Cairo Airport. The decision is purely related to the airlines.”
Barsoum added that “the British team that inspected the airport last week found nothing alarming; it was a positive visit.”
Former head of the Federation of Egyptian Chambers of Tourism Elhami Al-Zayyat believes BA might be taking a precautionary step against a possible Iranian attack against UK interests in a third country.
The chairmen of two tour agencies in business with the UK tourism market said the decision could have been caused by the chaos caused by some Algerian football fans at the Cairo International Airport — some of them were lying on the floor or on the luggage belt — waiting for planes to take them home after they had attended the final of the Africa Cup of Nations match between their national team and Senegal.
Such images, the tourism companies agreed, negatively affect the flow of tourism to Egypt.
“If the BA suspension of flights to Cairo lasts for more than a week, the decision could reduce the influx of British tourists,” said Karim Mohsen, a member of the Egyptian Chamber of Tourism Companies and head of a tour agency that deals with the British tourism market.
“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. The safety and security of our customers and crew is always our priority, and we would never operate an aircraft unless it was safe to do so,” BA’s official statement read.
On Saturday, the German airline Lufthansa followed in BA’s footsteps, announcing abruptly the suspension of its flights from Frankfurt and Munich to Cairo. Later on the same day, the airliner reversed its decision and resumed its flights to Cairo on Sunday according to its regular schedule.
Other European countries might have followed suit if Lufthansa had announced a week-long suspension. The German airliner is Europe’s largest, flying the majority of European travellers to Egypt, Mohsen added.
Mohsen said the British company did not issue an explanation for its decision, citing security concerns the nature of which it did not specify.
Captain Sameh Hefni, president of the Civil Aviation Authority, told the local media that BA’s suspension of flights was a decision taken against many international airports. “We did receive the announcement suspending BA flights, albeit without being provided with the reason,” Hefni said.
In a phone interview Hefni told the MBC Masr satellite channel that “these are all precautionary measures. Egypt’s airports are secure according to international safety standards. The problem is operational, it has nothing to do with security.”
He reassured viewers that other British tourism companies were still operating in the country, including Thomas Cook and TUI AG.
Al-Zayyat said that he had received inquiries from tourism companies in the US and New Zealand about the BA decision on Sunday. He said the UK had not adopted a different stand against Egypt and that airlines such as those of Serbia and Romania flying from London to Cairo remained on schedule.
Mohsen was not worried about any negative repercussions of the BA decision because the majority of UK tourists arrive in Egypt on charter flights that land directly in their chosen destination, such as those received at Hurghada Airport.
UK flights landing at Cairo International Airport are mostly limited to flying businessmen and travellers targeting cultural attractions.
Nora Ali, chairwoman of Master Travel, also a travel agency in business with the UK tourism market, concurred. Egypt would have seen negative repercussions on its tourism had the UK government issued a travel ban on Egypt or if Easyjet, the UK’s biggest operator of charter flights, had decided to reduce the number of its flights to Egypt.
The decision of the BA, considered the UK’s flagship carrier, was not fathomable, added Ali.
However, Sameh Saad, head of the agency Misr Travels, worried that the British airliner’s temporary suspension of flights to Cairo would spill over, affecting the number of British tourists arriving in Egypt in the coming weeks. Potential tourists might cancel their trips to Egypt if BA decided to extend the suspension, he stated.
The abrupt decision, Saad said, stressed the need for the formation of a crisis management committee in Egypt that could act to contain any situation that could negatively affect Egypt’s image.
The Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority said that it would add more flights, including a newly acquired Boeing 787 Dreamliner jet, from Cairo to London starting on Sunday “to facilitate transporting passengers during this period”.
BA had previously suspended its flights to Sharm El-Sheikh in late 2015 after a Russian plane was downed over the Sinai Peninsula shortly after take-off from the Red Sea resort.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Unexplained turbulence