Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 April 2004
Issue No. 686
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Turbulent times

Aviation authorities are working to help end the European campaign that has been maliciously attacking the safety of private Egyptian airlines, Amira Ibrahim reports

Since the tragic crash of a Flash Airline Boeing 737 in the waters of Sharm El- Sheikh killed 148 passengers and crew on 3 January, alarmist news stories have been making unsubstantiated claims that a number of other Egyptian private airlines are flouting safety standards.

Many Egyptian carriers came under fire from Western media reports questioning their safety records and whether the aviation authorities are doing their job effectively. Carriers and European and Egyptian authorities alike insist that there is no basis behind the current attempts to expel Egyptian airlines to the benefit of European competitors.

More than 30 news Web sites in the last two weeks have covered the story of an Egyptian airline being banned from France.

Three weeks ago, a Venezuelan pilot hired by Luxor Air flew two kilometres off course over the city of Nantes in France, passing over the city at an altitude of 183 metres.

After the safe landing, French authorities did not investigate the incident, saying that no technical problem had threatened flight safety, and allowed the plane to fly back to Luxor with a planeload of passengers. A few days later, however, the company was banned from France after complaints of the disturbance the plane caused to Nantes's residents.

The story continued to top aviation news for more than 10 days. But when the ban was removed, and the pilot was fired after an Egyptian investigation, not a single headline followed up to fully cover the story and get the facts straight.

Luxor Air is just one of several Egyptian private airlines that have had their good names besmirched by media attacks lately, resulting in considerable financial losses.

Another Egyptian charter carrier, Memphis Air, was reported to be included in a list of 11 airlines banned from the UK by British authorities.

The owners quickly moved to obtain an official statement from British authorities that Memphis Air was not on the list, and operated two flights to UK airports to demonstrate that they indeed were not banned.

"The false information released brought us losses exceeding LE2 million, since several major contracts were cancelled following the release of the story," stated Hamdi Issa, Memphis Air chairman.

"We then contacted a legal advisor in UK to sue the BBC, which produced the news story, but they agreed to correct it according to documents we obtained from UK aviation authorities," he added.

In another overblown incident, a Lutas Air plane taking off from Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris suffered technical difficulties with its electricity supply. While French authorities defended the airline as the only Egyptian charter as being in full compliance with safety standards and insisted that the incident was only a normal, unthreatening glitch, the Western media propagated incorrect details about the incident and alleged that the lives of dozens of European passengers were at risk.

As was the case for each of the Egyptian aircraft in question, this plane had regularly been serviced at European overhaul centres and Middle East centres licensed by the European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC).

Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Saleh Moussa, head of the Civil Aviation Authority, said there were two important issues to consider. The first was the trend by European authorities and media to unfairly eliminate competition from Egyptian private airlines.

"We're taking their fears into consideration, but we cannot ignore the fact that our companies are suffering and paying an exorbitant bill for competing with European airlines and air transport services companies," said Moussa.

"As the Egyptian currency lost 30 per cent of its value, Egyptian airlines offered cheaper flights compared to European carriers, which apparently disturbed European companies and their authorities as well. So, they used the crash of an Egyptian charter plane to sabotage all our private carriers," he explained.

Issa disagrees however. "It is just the illness the West suffers from the known-as Arabophobia. Some tend to hate everything and anything Arab," he commented.

Two days after the Flash Airlines crash, a Swiss official disclosed that the carrier had been banned from Swiss airports two years before due to safety concerns found in a random inspection. "A few days later we discovered that the Egyptian airline had been tricked by a Swiss air services company which pushed the officials to make this statement only to blackmail the Egyptian company into paying an overdue bill of FS33,000 (nearly $26,000)," commented Moussa.

More indications of foul play was uncovered with Memphis Air. "We were surprised to know that some of our clients in Europe received official letters claiming that our company was one of the companies banned in UK, which British authorities denied later," explained Issa.

As EU called its aviation authorities to release confidential safety records of all foreign airlines that use European airports, it also called on the World Tourism Organisation to classify international airlines according to safety by country and publicise the classifications to passengers. Some tourist operators in Europe hired specialised companies to inspect Egyptian private carriers.

"We welcomed the measure and our company has just been inspected by Air France Consulting, one of the major inspection companies in Europe and the report indicated no safety findings," commented Issa.

But the game was not over. Soon, Egyptian authorities received strange requests that discriminated against Egyptian carriers operating in the European market.

"Some European authorities requested their passengers to be transferred only aboard their national carriers. Some others tried to deny requests by Egyptian airlines to obtain permissions to operate flights from tourist cities in Egypt," Moussa disclosed.

"We resisted the attempts and we even threatened to apply equal treatment on their airlines so they changed back their stand," explained Moussa.

The second issue to consider is Egyptian aviation supervision policies. The tough regulation system assures that companies will meet international standards on the one hand and allow authorities to defend them on the other hand.

According to Moussa, the ECAC Safety Assessment for Foreign Airlines (SAFA) reports showed that 62 inspections were conducted on Egyptian operators in ECAC states during 2003, including the national carrier. "No major findings were indicated in the report. No aircraft grounded, no restriction on the aircraft operation and no entry permit repercussions."

He added that aviation authorities were presently studying a number of procedures to protect Egyptian airlines against libelous statements and unnecessary procedures by certain parties.

"Our criteria of inspections meet the International Civil Aviation Organisation standards regarding maintenance, safety, training programmes, everything," explained Moussa. "Yet, we have got the SAFA criteria of inspecting foreign airlines to follow their rules even in the minute details, thus we can help our carriers avoid being scandalised for no serious reasons," Moussa explained.

Nonetheless, this week Civil Aviation Minister Ahmed Shafiq ordered a change in regulations followed in the airline inspection process.

"Air inspectors will receive their payment from the ministry not the companies and we will collect it back from the airlines," stated Shafiq indicating that the move aimed to ensure that no unbecoming motives affect the inspection process.

Shafiq's latest decision had long been a basic demand of many aviation experts and even those in the business. "Air inspectors should be isolated from any pressure that can be practised on their work when they get their payment directly from airlines," stated Hamam Said, an ex-EgyptAir official and a former partner at a private airline.

He expressed his absolute support for the current strictness of air transport policies applied by aviation authorities, though it could have resulted in delays.

"Air transport consists of many components but safety tops them all," Said stated. "Owners of private airlines used to be annoyed when random inspections cause flights delays. But I believe they gain the benefits later when they can really compete with major European airlines with strong safety records," Said commented.

Issa agreed with Said but meanwhile wished that Egyptian authorities would not impose unnecessary restrictions. "Of course we have one eye on flight safety but the other eye is on running successful businesses. Now, whenever a random inspection yields any remark, aviation authorities ground the whole fleet and conduct comprehensive inspections even with planes that were just inspected. Time is money, especially for air transport. If they could just make things go a little faster and easier, that would be terrific," commented Issa.

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