Flying through conflict
With a war certain to wreak havoc on the airline industry, Amira Ibrahim takes a look at EgyptAir's contingency plan
For airlines, war means fewer passengers and flights, and more losses and threats. For EgyptAir, the ramifications of war are certain to be grave. In an exclusive interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, recently appointed EgyptAir Chairman Atef Abdel- Hamid said the airline did not have exact figures related to potential losses, but that the aviation industry in general was set to forfeit 25-40 per cent of its revenues. "The longer the war, the more we lose," Abdel- Hamid said, making clear that the losses would not only be reflected in poor ticket sales, but increased fuel prices, hefty insurance premiums, and expensive new security measures both for the carrier's fleet and its offices around the world.
The war is also certain to wreak havoc on the airline's international flight network, with some routes being modified, others travelling less frequently, and some destinations completely cancelled. "Flights to Kuwait and Qatar could be temporarily halted, for instance," said Abdel- Hamid.
"Of EgyptAir's seven affiliated companies," Abdel-Hamid said, "only two might escape the negative effects of war: the EgyptAir hospital and the firm's cargo company. The airline, ground services, air services, maintenance and technical support, tourism and duty free shops would all suffer from a sharp decrease in clientele."
In the next few days, EgyptAir will also be facing a challenge unique to its part of the world. Up to one million Egyptians working in Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain are expected to seek safe passage home once the war breaks out. But with only 32 planes in its fleet, the national carrier is bound to have a hard time bringing all these expatriates back home.
According to Abdel-Hamid, under normal circumstances, the company would have been able to transport some 5000-8000 passengers back home from the war zone daily. When war breaks out, however, Abdel-Hamid said, "the exact numbers we have to transport will become clearer".
The carrier plans to bring these passengers back home from the Amman and Al-Aqaba airports, which the labourers will make their way to via a network of roads from Iraq and the Gulf. To handle the large influx, the airline is adjusting the numbers of available planes and seats and the fleet's hours of operation, in addition to coordinating with other airlines working in the region if needed. "Plus," says Abdel-Hamid, "we expect strong levels of support from the air force C-130 fleet if a serious crisis occurs."
A committee has been formed to analyse reservation requests from countries within the war zone so the company has advance warning if there is a sharp rise in these requests.
Security is also high up on the airline's agenda of war preparedness. "We have activated the operational observance and control system with more procedures," Abdel-Hamid said, "in order to be able to contact our planes while they are flying at any point in the world and make necessary route changes in case of a possible threat. The minimum amount of contingency fuel will also be increased according to flight destinations."
Fear of terror is also driving the airline to spend more on security. "The company has intensified security procedures on all flights as well as at our offices abroad," Abdel- Hamid said. "We are also in close coordination with security authorities at all airports that our fleet flies to."
Early this week, EgyptAir equipped one of its five Boeing 777 jets with enhanced security doors. The move came as a result of a US Federal Aviation Authority request that all non-American airlines provide enhanced doors resisting ballistic penetration by 1 April. "The doors are made by the manufacturer, Boeing, but our engineers did all the technical work," said Abdel-Hamid. "We are going to apply the same modification to another six planes: four Boeing 777s and two Boeing 747s which operate on the Cairo- New York route. Abdel-Hamid also predicted that by November, the entire fleet would be equipped with the enhanced doors in order to meet stipulations set up by both the European Union and Egyptian aviation authorities. The upgrades will cost $1.2 million.
Although EgyptAir looks certain to pay an exorbitant price as a result of the war, the company's chairman is confident that the government will provide a lot of support. "It happened during the last Gulf War -- the government provided insurance coverage and paid for the increase in fuel prices. It even paid for the cost of the flight, for those who couldn't afford it. We expect similar support this time if needed," Abdel-Hamid concluded.