Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
10 - 16 February 2000
Issue No. 468
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

 
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Rough ride for EgyptAir

By Nadia Abou El-Magd


Hamdi Hanafi Taha
Things have gone from bad to worse for Egypt's national airline during the last six months. Troubles began when a deranged man managed to hijack one of EgyptAir's planes with a pen, an event heralded then by a cover story in the weekly Rose el-Youssef titled "A catastrophe called EgyptAir."

Then on 31 October, EgyptAir flight 990 en route from New York to Cairo crashed off the east coast of the United States, killing all 217 passengers on board. While the final report on the causes of the crash has not been completed, speculation has been rife in the United States since November that the tragedy might have been the result of a deliberate act by suicide-bent co-pilot Gamil El-Batouti.

Only a few weeks ago, two EgyptAir pilots were suspended after a videotape made a few years ago by two female German tourists was released showing the pilots engaged in indecent acts with the two women in the cockpit while a flight was in progress. Last Friday, news broke about pilot Hamdi Hanafi Taha, 49, who abandoned his plane after landing in London and sought political asylum -- claiming that he has information about the crash of flight 990.

EgyptAir's chairman, Mohamed Fahim Rayan, was the first to announce that Taha was seeking asylum. However, his statement added that Taha "doesn't have any connection to or knowledge about the cause of the plane crash".

Osama El-Baz, President Hosni Mubarak's political adviser, said, "This pilot can't know anything about the plane, the chances that he has any information [about the crash of flight 990] are very slim." El-Baz spoke at a seminar held at the Book Fair Sunday. Taha, according to El-Baz, did not participate in any stage of the ongoing investigations into the causes of the crash. El-Baz attributed Taha's actions to personal reasons; either financial or familial.

El-Baz seized the opportunity to re-emphasise Egypt's rejection of and anger at "the naive assumption that it was suicide [by El-Batouti that caused the crash of flight 990] because it was an attempt to remove all responsibility from the company [Boeing] and others".

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Transportation Safety Board -- both investigating the crash -- were reported to have sent two officials to London to question Taha about his alleged possession of information.

Following the crash of flight 990, the Egyptian press was rife with conspiracy theories about the cause of the crash. As such, Taha's bid for asylum has been viewed by some newspapers as giving additional credence to their theories. For example, on Tuesday, the biweekly Al-Shaab, mouthpiece of the opposition Labour Party, wrote: "The fleeing proves the American conspiracy."

Samir Ragab, editor-in-chief of the state-owned daily Al-Gomhuria, who has been a vocal critic of EgyptAir, considered what the pilot did to be "a sin against Egypt". In his daily column, Ragab said that EgyptAir's problems don't justify Taha's actions. "This ignominious act is like that of a soldier who gives up his weapon in the battlefield, and then turns himself over to the enemy begging to sell his honour."

Taha's co-pilot, Mohamed Salama, who flew the plane back from London, told the Egyptian press that the pilot "doesn't suffer from psychological problems but from problems with the administration and operations section of EgyptAir". Despite their high incomes -- LE20,000 was reported as Taha's monthly salary -- more than 20 pilots have disputes with EgyptAir.

Passengers also have their complaints; punctuality, quality of service and food are frequently cited as needing improvement. Ibrahim El-Demiri, the transportation minister, criticised the performance of EgyptAir and announced that there is a move to transform it into a holding company, which implies the possibility that there are plans to privatise the 67-year-old carrier.

In the first such open criticism, El-Demiri told reporters that the cabinet had agreed recently to give the company six months to improve its performance and reduce its losses which reached LE200 million in 1998. Rayan, who has been the company's chairman since 1981, remains staunchly opposed to the privatisation of EgyptAir. As one of Egypt's largest employers, the carrier has a staff of 18,000, but its fleet is made up of only 38 aircrafts.

Adam El-Nawawi, who covers the aviation sector for the daily Al-Ahram, told Al-Ahram Weekly "privatisation will improve service, safety, efficiency and be good for the health of the carrier and the Egyptians who rely on it."

In a message sent to British authorities at London's Heathrow Airport, Taha described chairman Rayan as a "bloody killer" and Ahmed Kato, head of the Civil Aviation Authority, along with Hassan Mesharafa, the airline's head of operations as "devils". Kato and Mesharafa lead the Egyptian teams that are investigating the crash of flight 990 with the American authorities.

Mesharafa announced on Sunday that EgyptAir has suspended Taha as of 4 February. According to the Egyptian labour law, failure to report to the airline within eight days of suspension will result in dismissal.

EgyptAir declined to answer questions about the psychological tests that pilots are required to take every six months. Reminiscent of the situation following the accusations that co-pilot El-Batouti committed suicide by crashing flight 990.

Plainclothes policemen prevented journalists from meeting Taha's family which lives on the 6th floor of a building located in the Cairo suburb, Madinet Nasr. Currently married to two women, an American and an Egyptian, Taha's Egyptian wife Hoda Abdel-Rahman Youssef told Al-Ahram Weekly by phone "I still can't believe what I'm hearing. I don't know why he did it," she sobbed. Married for 20 years, the couple has six children, the youngest of whom is just nine months old. "We are all shocked and can't understand what happened," Taha's eldest son Mohamed, 15-years-old, told the Weekly. Mohamed said his father was "distressed just like all Egyptians" after the crash of flight 990. But it appears that he did not discuss the matter with his family, "he used to tell me to concentrate on my lessons," added Mohamed.

Youssef and Mohamed denied having any knowledge of Taha's American wife. However, Montasser El-Zayat, an Islamist lawyer and unofficial spokesman for the militant Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiya, confirmed that Taha had an American wife.

El-Zayat said he met with Taha for the first time in 1986 when Taha introduced himself to El-Zayat during a flight piloted by the former. "He was very upbeat when he talked about the campaign he was leading then to ban alcohol on EgyptAir," El-Zayat told the Weekly.

Taha and his colleagues won the case but it was one of the factors that had strained his relationship with the national carrier. "I don't think he has information about the crash [flight 990], I think his relationship with the company had been strained and was about to end, that's why he sought asylum," El-Zayat added.

The lawyer went on to explain that Taha couldn't claim that "he is religiously persecuted as he has never been arrested in any case." El-Zayat added, however, that he does not know why Taha chose Britain for asylum.

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