Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (492)
Egypt's geographical location had always allowed it to be a natural aerial gateway. The country's interest in joining the world of civil aviation, which began in 1924, was, therefore, only natural. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* sees what Egypt hoped to achieve in order to succeed in the "great project"
In the spring of 1924, the Ministry of Transportation formed a committee to study the possibilities of commercial aviation in Egypt. Consisting of senior ministry officials and representatives of the Customs Authority, the committee marked the beginning of the drive to launch this form of commercial activity.
Among the preliminary recommendations of the committee was to create a civil aviation authority under the Ministry of Transportation. The function of the authority would be to supervise everything pertaining to air traffic control, airport construction and administration and implementation and conformity to a variety of relevant technical specifications.
The "great project", as Al-Ahram described it, inspired widespread enthusiasm. The newspaper itself urged promulgating an ordinance to "regulate the arrival and departure of aircraft to and from Egypt". It also expressed its hope that the project would become a reality within five years, after which a short time later Egypt would have entered a new world.
In August 1925, Al-Ahram announced that the Ministry of Transport had dispatched its first civil aviation mission to Europe. Five graduates of the mechanics department of the College of Engineering and four candidates from the Ministry of War would undergo a three-year course of study in civil aviation and related sciences, with practical training in the various subjects reserved for the final year. Candidates had been subjected to rigorous physical examinations before being accepted, the newspaper added.
Al-Ahram informs us, in October that year, that a group of Egyptian entrepreneurs, foremost among whom was Hassan Anis Pasha, founded a company for "the advancement of commercial aviation in Egypt". The news report continues: "They are currently in the process of introducing shares and exploring the most suitable model of aircraft for their company. The company founders incline towards an all-metal, three-engine aircraft with a capacity of 10 passengers and two tons of freight." The birth of EgyptAir had just been heralded, although premonitions of that birth were heard as early as the previous year.
On 12 January Al-Ahram had as its headline, "In Almaza Airport: minister of transportation and Talaat Harb Bek take to the air in small aircraft." Under this headline, Al-Ahram reports that the flight of these two figures over Heliopolis was part of the festivities commemorating the decision to found an aviation company in Egypt "under the supervision of that great national institution, Banque Misr". The report paid special tribute to the efforts of "that most capable and accomplished of men, Talaat Harb Bek, who laid the foundations for Egypt's economic revival, indeed, for true independence in Egypt, and whose admirable energies and exemplary deeds have extended to other countries of the East beyond Egypt."
Among the other guests present at the ceremony was the deputy minister of foreign affairs, first secretary of His Majesty the King, the project director of Banque Misr, the British commercial attaché in Cairo and the director of the Aviation Department at the Ministry of Transportation. These and others watched as the director of an airport in Britain circled overhead in "a three-seater model, enclosed in order to protect the pilot and passengers from the cold and wind". Following a brief aeronautics display "in demonstration of the pilot's skill, the Honourable Talaat Harb Bek boarded a plane for the first time in his life and circled over Heliopolis for 20 minutes. When he landed, he was exuberant from his experience and remarked that he felt not the least bit tired. On the contrary, he said, it was as though he had been in an automobile, with the difference that movement was not restricted by traffic and the attendant nuisances."
Soon afterwards Talaat Harb and his associates in Banque Misr submitted a proposal for a commercial airline company to the Ministry of Transportation. Published in the ministry's annual report of March that year, Al-Ahram relayed some of the details to its readers. Following a brief overview of the history of aviation, the report underscored the geographical advantages of Egypt, "which is a natural passageway for international airways linking Europe with India and Australia and with eastern and southern Africa." In the report, an American expert had also described Egypt's weather conditions for flying as being second only to southern California.
Over the previous four years, great efforts had been exerted to transform the dream of making Egypt "a central link in aerial communications" into reality. According to the report, three successive missions had been sent to England: in 1927, 1928 and 1929, to specialise in commercial aviation. In 1927, the first air mail and air freight service opened between Cairo and Basra. In 1929, this service was extended to Karachi "and in the near future it is expected to extend beyond India into Dutch East India [Indonesia] and from there to Australia". In 1929 a second airway connecting Egypt to Europe was opened, this one travelled by amphibious planes over the Mediterranean. The following year saw the inauguration of an air route between Egypt and South Africa. With these developments, "Egypt became an aerial hub between Europe, India and Africa," the report proclaimed.
The ministerial report went on to discuss the government's programme to promote civil aviation. Heading the agenda was the construction of two airports, the first in Cairo and the second in Alexandria. The Cairo airport was to be located in an area called Almaza, two kilometres east of Heliopolis, on land obtained by the government from the Ain Shams Oasis Company in exchange for a tract of land on the Cairo-Suez Road. According to the report, the government had already paved the runways "in a manner that inspires confidence". It had brought in electricity, built an iron wall around the airport and completed construction of a hanger for light aircraft and their equipment. The ministry also made the necessary modifications to accommodate civil aviation.
For the airport in Alexandria, the government had chosen a spot three kilometres to the west of Al-Meks. Although much of the preparatory work had been completed, "completion of the airport will take place when financial circumstances permit". The report continues: "We hope the delay will not be prolonged so that the country does not lose the benefits that will accrue from making the necessary facilities for aerial transportation."
However, the most crucial item in the report was its reference to the proposal submitted to the ministry by Banque Misr for the creation of an Egyptian airlines company running commercial flights in Egypt and between Egypt and neighbouring countries such as Palestine and Sudan. It added that the company would engage foreign experts and that most of its capital and the majority of its board of directors would be Egyptian. It concluded, "It is hoped that this year will not have ended without the Egyptian airlines company having begun its civilian aviation operations in Egypt."
Not only was the Ministry of Transport's optimism well placed, its enthusiasm was infectious, judging by the reaction its report elicited from Al-Ahram's readership. In response to requests from readers, Al-Ahram published the proposal submitted to the ministry by "the eminent financier Mohamed Talaat Harb Bek for the creation of a company to engage in the aviation business in Egypt".
Talaat Harb made a number of specific recommendations that would have undoubtedly inspired confidence in his project. He recommended, firstly, partnering with the British- based Airwork Limited Company in the creation of an Egyptian company, with a starting capital of LE12,000, of which 60 per cent would be Egyptian controlled. Secondly, he recommended creating special academies for instruction in piloting civilian aircraft and airport and air transport administration. At a later phase, he added, EgyptAir would organise air routes and construct stations to service and repair privately owned aircraft. But Banque Misr also had a number of requests to put forward in the name of the company it was sponsoring. These included reduced rents on the premises intended for use as airline offices, direct access to wireless communications and weather observatories and nominal rates on the site necessary for the construction of hangars and other facilities. Additional requests included the use of government airports for EgyptAir's aviation schools, a financial reward for every pilot it trains and customs exemption.
Two months later, Al-Ahram announced that the government not only approved of the project but also intended to offer it all possible facilities and assistance "so keen is the government's desire to encourage civil aviation in Egypt". The government asked Talaat Harb to delegate one or more individuals to attend the sessions of the committee that had been created to study the proposed company. At the same time, the report continued "the representative of a group of foreign technicians arrived in the capital in order to engage in negotiations with Banque Misr on this issue."
Egyptians followed the news of the meetings of the committee closely, sparse as this news was. On 26 May 1931, under the headline, "Banque Misr Airline Company", Al- Ahram reported that although the company would start with only five airplanes it would eventually purchase more as the need arose. It explained: "This is precisely the plan that had been adopted by the British company that will be cooperating with the bank in this project. That company had initially constructed wooden hangars to shelter its airplanes. However, its activities expanded rapidly and now it possesses more than 800 hangars built to the latest technical specifications."
Two weeks later, the newspaper announced that EgyptAir would begin operations in the coming winter. For the moment, however, the company's first concern was to establish a school in Almaza Airport "the purpose of which will be to instruct Egyptian youth in the art of flying". However, tuition costs would not be cheap. At LE5 per hour, the 12 hours necessary to obtain "Certificate A" would cost LE60. Students would then have to put in at least 100 hours of flying time in order to obtain "Certificate B". Nevertheless, the company hoped the government would cover the bulk of tuition costs.
Some news report added that EgyptAir intended to buy a number of planes then resort, if the need arose, to renting an additional number of planes from the British company in the winter season. "The reasoning was that this season was not suitable for flying in England. The company will call on trainer pilots from England to teach this art since there is not, at the present time in Egypt, the number of pilots required to meet the demand."
After the finance minister had completed studying the plan and approved its terms, he forwarded it to the Council of Ministers which, in turn, endorsed it. However, "officials at Banque Misr noticed that governmental control was more than what was needed in return for the grants and assistance promised." After more negotiations between the two sides they reached a compromise and executive steps were taken to implement what was agreed upon.
We understood from one news item that the company employed an English director, a Mr J L Shand, who arrived in Cairo at the end of September 1931. His first statement was that the company would go slowly because it was established during an economic crisis. Its development thereafter would depend on the demand for it, and that "the administration is ready to implement its programmes once it receives a permit from the government. The planes that would be used for that purpose are ready and waiting in London."
Egyptians waited until mid-January of the following year -- 1932 -- before other news arrived about the implementation of the agreement between the government and EgyptAir. More news came concerning a request by the company for six new planes. In accordance with the agreement, Al-Ahram added, EgyptAir would arrange days for air trips over Cairo and its suburbs in return for a fixed price. "As for establishing airlines inside the country, the company does not intend to do so until an accurate study and profound research of these projects is completed."
On 1 February, a British document pointed to the fact that EgyptAir had entered into the implementation stage after its board of directors had had its first meeting, and that its capital had exceeded LE20,000 instead of LE12,000, divided over 5,000 shares, the value of each share being LE4. Three thousand shares went to the Egyptian side and 2,000 went to the British as represented by the Airwork company.
The document mentioned that the first board of directors of EgyptAir was formed of 10 members, six Egyptians and four Britons. Two of the Egyptians were from Banque Misr, Talaat Harb himself and Medhat Yakan Pasha as the chairman of the board. The deputy chairman was Mohamed Taher Pasha, chairman of the Egyptian Aviation Club. Two other members were selected by the government, Mohamed Mazloum Pasha, former director of the Postal Authority, and Saleh Enan Pasha, former under-secretary of the Ministry of Domestic Works. In addition, there was Kamal Elwi Bey who was EgyptAir's general director.
As for the British side, there was, in addition to Mr Shand, Mr Alan Muntz and Mr H Norman another member whom the negotiations focussed on: Mr R C Martin, who was the director general of Shell in Egypt. Approval from the mother company in Britain was required for Martin to be employed in such an important position. Airwork Limited depended a great deal on this approval being made due to the man's profound knowledge of Egypt.
The Egyptian government and EgyptAir were busy after that trying to make available the required facilities needed to turn the dream into reality and written words into facts. One news item was about Mustafa Riad Mursi, a member of the aviation mission sent by the Ministry of Transport to London. Al-Ahram congratulated Egyptians on the completion of Mursi's education and his acquiring of the highest technical certificates from the School of Aviation from the British Aviation Ministry.
Another news item dealt with new graduates from the Egyptian School of Aviation. It specifically mentioned two graduates who had been educated there "and spent sufficient periods of training in practicing how to fly". The reader must have noticed that the two in question were non-Egyptians: Andrew Bitar and George Eskanian. This led Al-Ahram to publish a statement on the situation, saying that the school has a number of pupils who have completed their training and can take the test successfully "but the strictness by which the health of the pilots is upheld prevented them from achieving this goal. Some people whose work is related to aviation object to the ministry placing such exaggerated conditions, saying that the situation in England does not require this."
In the meantime, the Department of Aviation, which was affiliated to the Ministry of Transport, began implementing the work required to ensure the safety of take-offs and landings of EgyptAir planes at Dakheila Airport in Alexandria and Almaza Airport in Cairo.
The department's report said that work on Dakheila Airport had been under way since October 1932. One specified site had been reserved for first-aid equipment while fire fighters were to be used in times of need. Preparations had also been made to connect the airport by telephone with a Ras Ettine wireless station to facilitate receiving and sending signals "related to the arrival and departure of airplanes without delay".
A number of changes were introduced to the second airport, Almaza, related to prohibited areas and construction sites in accordance with the direction of the wind. The changes included a suggestion to extend the major Heliopolis road to the north close to the airport. "One of the results of these changes was finding a main entrance to the airport through Heliopolis which was more suitable than the present Almaza road."
The report then listed some work which was termed "urgent", such as fixing a wireless in the building specified for offices "in order to facilitate the exchange of messages between planes passing by and other stations". Also needing repair were the lights signalling the location of the airport and which was hoped to be completed before the end of 1933. An area of some width was also needed "to face the continuously rising need to provide shelter to planes in the airport".
The lengthy report concluded that the aim of all such preparations was to help EgyptAir operate a regular airline between Cairo, Alexandria and Port Said. "Its planes would fly several times a week, and there is also the intention to extend this airline to Marsa Matrouh during the summer season."
While the Department of Aviation made all the preparations, the new company had ordered four more planes which arrived in parts in Alexandria harbour on 29 April 1932. The parts were placed in 13 boxes "and the customs office had approved their passage without customs duties". Al-Ahram wrote that the planes were on their way to Cairo. However, the matter took about 16 months before one of them was allowed to take off to Alexandria on Tuesday 1 August 1933.
Two days earlier, EgyptAir had invited a number of journalists and several high-ranking officials to a tea party held at Almaza Airport, after which they flew on the company planes which took them over the capital and its suburbs. They knew at the time that the company intended to have two daily flights between Cairo and Alexandria, coming and going. The first flight was to leave Cairo at 8am and be back at 9. The second would depart from Cairo at 4pm and return at 5.30.
The advertisements appearing in the newspapers mentioned the price of the tickets: 195 piastres for a one-way trip and 351 piastres for a round-trip ticket. These prices were exorbitant compared with the standards of the times, especially since the assistance which the company received from the government, according to the legislation on licences, was only LE634 pounds.
The fact was that the beginning of EgyptAir was a modest enterprise because of its local nature. Many surprises would be in store for EgyptAir which was to become the biggest airline company in the region as well as the oldest.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.