The worst is over
Though Iceland's volcanic eruption left thousands stranded and the air industry dented in Egypt, North Africa appears to have evaded the full brunt of the wandering ash cloud at the end of a turbulent week, reports Amirah Ibrahim
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A chartered Boeing 757 flies through clouds from Newcastle, England to rescue 229 passengers stranded in Sharm El-Sheikh. Though experts assure the crisis has largely been averted, Europe holds its breath as the haze of volcanic ash shifts direction, now moving towards the Atlantic
As many European airports cleared operations, Egyptian airlines resumed flights to Europe, attempting to transfer more than 17,000 tourists stranded in Egypt. The crisis borne by the volcanic eruption in Iceland, which sent vast ash clouds across much of continental Europe, softened when European transport ministers Monday agreed a deal to cut the size of no-fly zones as airlines and businesses heaped pressure on authorities to reopen European airspace.
On Tuesday, a number of Egyptian airlines offered dozens of flights to help passengers move in and out the country. The Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority (ECAA) released figures showing that five private airlines operated 33 flights from Hurghada and Sharm El-Sheikh airports to European destinations. "The majority of flights headed to cities in south Europe, including Rome and Marseilles, as well as to Barcelona. The only cancellations occurred with AMC airlines which had to abort seven flights to Poland and two to France," said Sameh El-Hefni, ECAA chairman.
The national carrier, EgyptAir, on the other hand resumed flights to six destinations in Europe, including Frankfurt, Munich, Geneva, Paris, Vienna and Budapest. Brussels, Dusseldorf, Berlin and London remained closed.
Hopes of a resumption of normal air traffic between Egypt and Europe were tempered early week by news that the ash clouds were spewing as far as the southern Mediterranean and may strand Egyptians and remaining tourists further. Reports indicated that at least five Middle East countries were soon to be exposed to volcanic ash in the atmosphere -- Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine. But by noon yesterday winds had diverted ash clouds away from northern Mediterranean and they appear now to be heading into the Atlantic Ocean.
Nonetheless, officials remain cautious. "We are watching the situation closely in cooperation with European air traffic centres to see if the ash cloud is a threat to air transport," commented Ahmed Said, chairman of the Air Navigation Company. "At worst, Egyptian air space will not be closed. We have a contingency plan to operate from Upper Egypt airports as well as Red Sea airports. We have also coordinated with aviation authorities to provide airlines crews who may be exposed to volcanic ashes with useful guides," Said added.
The air transport business has been trying to overcome the negative influence of a troubling 18-month period where a world credit crunch hit the business hard in Egypt, followed by the H1N1 epidemic that crippled air travel for a considerable time. Now, Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano is adding salt to open wounds.
Aviation Minister Ahmed Shafiq warned that the crisis would affect air transport badly and damage poor countries more than rich ones. He declined to comment on possible means to compensate losing businesses. "We are in the middle of a storm. All we can do for now is to try to face the problem and get through it safely and with the least damage. When it is over, we will estimate the losses and consider how to handle them," Shafiq said in a press conference Sunday.
For EgyptAir, the crisis is another blow to its financial standing. "This will cripple our efforts to improve financial performance," explained Hussein Massoud, chairman of EgyptAir Holding Company. "We cannot estimate loses on the spot. Yet, the crisis will affect the annual balance in a negative way, putting into consideration the consequences of the world financial crisis that harmed all airlines," he explained.
Luckily enough, the national carrier did not have any aircraft stranded at European airports, as it did not operate any night flights last Thursday. All the fleet flew back from Europe by mid-day, just before the volcanic eruption.
According to Ibrahim Manaa, head of the Egyptian Holding Company for Airports and Air Navigation (EHCAAN), which supervises all 22 Egyptian airports, the five-day paralysis in air traffic in Europe will mean great losses. "The air navigation business is losing 50,000 euros every day. Cairo International Airport's loses exceeded $100,000 in addition to LE1.8 millions so far," Manna explained. "As for other airports, losses are estimated at $600,000," he added.
Manna further indicated that the reduction in traffic to Egyptian airports ranged at around 30 per cent, while "the traffic at some airports has been reduced by rates of 47 per cent."
A statement issued by ECAA stated that 89 flights had been cancelled at Cairo International Airport for Egyptian and foreign airlines. Hurghada Airport topped the cancellations list at 421, followed by Sharm El-Sheikh Airport at 253, the majority of which charter flights. Luxor Airport saw 44 flights cancelled, whereas Taba Airport saw 23 cancellations. In addition to delays, the total affected flights exceeded 1,548.
Lufthansa and Air France operated flights Tuesday with aircraft that had been stranded at Cairo International Airport since Thursday. Air Berlin Airlines operated two flights to Munich and Colon. But even with flights resuming, passengers face the prospect of further delays before they can get to their final destinations as airlines clear the backlog.
"We cannot take the stranded passengers instead of the ones who have confirmed bookings. All we can do is to try to provide more alternatives to those who can travel to a near destination where we have capacity," stated Captain Alaa Ashour, chairman of EgyptAir. "We will also try to operate additional flights if needed. But this is subject to approvals by European airports," Ashour explained.
EgyptAir said it had re-issued tickets free of charge for passengers with reservations on cancelled flights. On the other hand, the airline operated larger aircraft to Rome, Madrid and Barcelona, so as to transfer more of those who desired to find a way to their final destination through rail transport or other means in Europe.
Travel agents said that reservations to key European airports cannot be made for the time being; that airlines will take at least a week to clear stranded passengers before taking fresh bookings. "Confirmed seats are available only in first class after 28 April. Reservations in economy class are not available. There is a huge waiting list," said Amr Sidqi, managing director of one travel agency.
The problem of stranded passengers shook the tourism industry in particular in Luxor, Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada where official figures indicated that more than 17,000 tourists were in need of accommodation. Governor of Luxor Samir Farag moved immediately with travel agencies to secure the stay of stranded tourists in their hotels. "In fact, the stranded tourists replaced tourists who could not arrive from Europe. Nile cruise boats also accommodated a considerable number of them," Farag told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Tourists were offered many options: "Either to be transferred to any European destination, or to stay and contact their embassies to afford the accommodation and to secure them financially," explained Farag. The same happened in Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada.
At Cairo International Airport, the scene has been different. Departure halls remained busy with stranded passengers who slept on floors for the first four days, each hoping to take a seat onboard a return flight whenever possible. A number of foreign groupings in Cairo called on compatriots to host citizens of the same nationality in their home. The French League secured accommodation for 50 stranded French passengers in this way.