Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 -16 April 2003
Issue No. 633
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Dealing with disaster

Civil aviation has been hit hard by the war. Amira Ibrahim investigates

In just three short weeks, the war on Iraq's effect on Egypt's civil aviation sector has been devastating. And the longer it lasts, the worse things are going to get. Aviation Minister Ahmed Shafiq made that clear at a press conference this week detailing both the severe problems the sector is facing, as well as the various attempts being made to make a worsening situation somewhat bearable.

"Air transport at all Egyptian airports has suffered a drastic drop," said Shafiq. The numbers tell a sad story -- drops of 13-15 per cent at Cairo airport, 50 per cent at Luxor, 65 per cent at Sharm El-Sheikh, and a whopping 82 per cent at Hurghada. "This gives an indication of how badly aviation is going to suffer," the aviation minister said.

The resulting drop in revenues, however, will not be shutting down or delaying important projects like the Cairo International Airport expansion plan, which Shafiq said would still be completed, on schedule, at the end of this year.

One way the ministry is hoping to increase revenue is by jacking up the fees paid by carriers to the airports themselves. According to Shafiq, there is no reason why Egyptian fees should be lower than those charged by other airports in the region. "Under the current circumstances it is unacceptable that foreign airlines at Cairo International Airport only pay a third of what they pay at Amman airport, for instance," said Shafiq.

National carrier EgyptAir is also feeling the economic heat generated by the war. The national carrier's chairman, Atef Abdel-Hamid, said that if the war goes on for another three weeks, EgyptAir's losses would amount to $400 million. Although Abdel-Hamid said the crisis would not end up affecting the airline's staff, some important measures have been taken in an attempt to soften the blow for the company as a whole.

For one thing, pilots and crews will be getting their flight bonuses in Egyptian currency because "the government is in the midst of a hard currency crisis and doing this will not harm the staff," said Abdel-Hamid.

The 50 per cent drop in EgyptAir's traffic has forced the airline to implement serious adjustments in its flight scheduling, amongst other things. For the second time in two months, EgyptAir has reduced the number of flights on its New York-Cairo line. "We now operate three trips a week instead of five," said Ahmed El-Nadi, the airline's chairman. El-Nadi also said that beginning this week, "we will not operate flights with low occupation rates because we can not afford to do so. This means that even those three trips may not take place every week," El-Nadi told Al- Ahram Weekly.

Similar measures will be taken on all other routes that have low occupation rates.

El-Nadi also said that attempts were being made to cut costs in other ways as well. "Studies showed that our planes spend 16 hours between arrival and departure at the airport in New York, which results in 1800 hours a year, valued at $7.5 million, wasted. We thus modified the schedule so that there is only three hours of waiting time there," El-Nadi explained.

A "code share agreement" with Austrian Airlines has also been inked, allowing EgyptAir to use Austria's European network, thus saving some 3600 operational hours valued at $10 million per year. El-Nadi said the airline was "waiting for the government to ratify the agreement and activate it within the next few months."

EgyptAir offices abroad are also going into damage- control mode by moving away from expensive downtown locations until traffic picks up again. El-Nadi said that many offices abroad had also been scrapped altogether in favour of using intermediary offices managed by local agents.

The war has also affected the aviation sector in other ways. According to Shafiq, extensive measures have been taken to make sure the industry is well protected in case of terror threats. Thirty- four EgyptAir security officers have received extra training at a military Commandos Unit. Shafiq said this group was "only the beginning. All of our security staff will go through the same training regimen, and many will also travel to institutes abroad for even more in-depth anti-terror training."

The Shafiq press conference also featured a live demonstration of a terror attempt to take control of a plane. The newly trained security officers demonstrated the different procedures they'd learned to deal with difficult situations like these.

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