Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 May 2012
Issue No. 1098
Sky High
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

MisrAir: a wealth of²experience

Egypt's national carrier is celebrating its 80th anniversary amid an economic and political disturbance. Amirah Ibrahim reviews how the eight decades shaped the flag carrier

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Election workers count ballots at the end of voting for a parliamentary election in Algeria. Algerians voted last Thursday for a new parliament in a country left behind by the "Arab Spring"

Egypt²was introduced to flying and air travel in the early 20th century. By then, European pilots used to bring their old planes for an annual air show over the Nile delta.²In 1911 an Egyptian Oxford graduate Hasan Anis Basha obtained a flying certificate from Paris and in 1914 he used his own airplane in a short trip between Cairo and Sharqiah. In 1925 Anis purchased a new plane from Germany aiming to²fly it to Cairo, but the government did not permit the plane to land in Egypt and he had to end in Tekreet island.²

In 1930, Mohammad Sidqi, a banker at Egypt's first Egyptian bank, Bank Misr, became the first Egyptian pilot to land his plane in Egypt. Soon, a group of aviation lovers gathered and formed the first aviation club to encourage aviation culture among the Egyptians.

At then, the Egyptian government had certified two European airlines to operate regular flights from Europe to Egypt and beyond. The British Airwork operated three routes from London to Alexandria, Karatchi via Cairo and between Cairo and Al-Basra in Iraq. The Dutch Air company operated one service to Karachi via Cairo.

Egypt's national economy pioneer, Talat Harb Basha, who headed Bank Misr, used his power to establish an Egyptian airline, as part of his ambitious project to Egyptianise all economic industries to confront foreign monopoly over the economy. A royal decree was² issued on 7 May, 1932, to form the new airline as a commercial carrier. Harb moved to form a share holders company as a² joint venture with the British Airwork. The fist Chairman was Medhat Yakan Basha, with five Egyptians and three British as members.

The newly born airline was given two names, one in Arabic "Misr Air" and the other in English "Misr Airwork". Out of 5000 shares each valued at LE4, 60 per cent were owned by Egyptians and 40 per cent for the foreigners. Misr Air moved to build a Tarmac at the old airport of Almaza, currently a military airbase, established a fly training school and maintenance hangars. On the spot, Misr Air signed a contract to purchase new five English made aircraft.

The airline started operation as a charter airline, organising flights to Khartoum, Baghdad, Damascus and Beni Ghazi. It also organised air tours over Cairo. On 7 June it opened a branch to train those interested²in aviation. On 30 June it took delivery of two D Havilland Dragon aircraft carrying four passengers and it was able to start regular operation. In 1933, Misr Air launched its first service Cairo-Alexandria for two pounds as a fare but did not meet a positive response by travelers and it had to reduce the fare to one and half pounds to promote the route. Late²that year it added another domestic route to Aswan via Assiut and Luxor. Within less than two years, the airline launched its first international service in mid-February between Cairo and Haifa in Palestine.

In 1935, Misr Air added seven DHavilland Express 86 provided with four engines carrying 14 passengers and thus expanded its domestic network to add Port Said, Menya and Assiut. Later Cyprus, Baghdad and Yafa joined the international network.² By 1936, the newly born airline²became the first operator to the Holy Lands in Saudi Arabia, operating to Jeddah and Al-Madinah

In 1937, the training school brought its first fruits, when the first few Egyptian pilots graduated and replaced the English pilots. The airline enjoyed a good reputation among the carriers in the region with an excellent safety record. It was awarded the golden medal twice in 1935 and 1938 by the International Air Lines Organisation.

The capital increased from LE20,000 to LE80,000²and more three aircrafts were added to the fleet. But it was the year 1939 which represented a remarkable turning point for Misr Air. Thanks to World War II and the initial²German victories over the British troops in Africa,²the British partners decided to quit the partnership and in no time the Egyptian manager Rushdie Tabozada took advantage of the situation and purchased the English shares. The Egyptian airline²became a 100 per cent Egyptian-owned airline. The English name was removed and²Egyptian technicians replaced the British.

The airline however was still to be supervised by the Royal Air Force and part of its fleet consisted of 27 aircraft was used by the government. It is worth noting²that the Egyptian workshops succeeded in 1940 to manufacture training planes for military purposes, established new branches for maintenance, engines and bodies overhaul. Moreover, the Egyptian technicians succeeded to modify two military Afro19 and Ansan aircraft into commercial² aircrafts, astonishing Airwork engineers.

In 1948, Misr Air, purchased five Viking aircraft carrying 24 passengers and the airline joined the big airlines club and the cabin crew appeared for the first time onboard. In the early fifties of the 20th century, five Langduk² left Air France fleet to join Misr Air. But when the Army led a revolution and the royal family²was ousted in 1952, Misr Air entered a new era. The capital was increased from LE300,000 to²LE1 million pounds. Three Viscount aircraft were added to the fleet and the network extended to big European capitals²and cities like Paris, Athens, Milan and Geneva.

In 1956 the airline moved its operation to the new airport At Hikestip, east Cairo, but unfortunately it lost three aircrafts in the same year by the raids launched by Tripartite Aggression troops, led by Bitain, France and Israel against Egypt. Soon in 1958, EgyptAir opened marketing offices in Europe for the first time.

In 1960, the fleet contained three turbo planes, D Havilland Comet C4, which carried 84 passengers, allowing the airline for the first time to operate long distance services to Frankfurt, Rome, Zurich and London. The same year when Egypt and Syria merged into one united country, EgyptAir lost its brand name to the favour of United Arab Air as a new brand which it kept for long years even after the two countries ended the merger.

Soon the government ordered a reshape of the airline and it was converted into The Public Arab Air institution, with four companies affiliated --²the domestic airline, the international airline, the technical branch and the tourism company. In 1963, the airline moved its operation from Hikestip airport to Cairo International where it still operates its flights until the present day.

The 1967 military defeat of Egypt affected the abilities of the Egyptian government to finance developing and modernising plans of the national carrier. However, with the help of some Arab governments, the airline received seven B707 aircraft and an was able to resume long distance service to Tokyo. The airline²remained administratively unstable being supervised by the military for a while, the Transportation, Tourism ²and the Economy Ministries for other whiles. But in 1971, a presidential decree was issued to establish a new Ministry for Aviation for the first time. Only then, the airlines regained its original name, EgyptAir, once again. The 1970s were the most difficult years for the airline²because of²the aftermath of the military struggle and the war against Israel.

It was in 1981 that Fahim Rayan, an ex-air forces engineer, took over the management as number 13 in the list of managers who led the airline over its long history. He conducted²an ambitious²project to expand, modernise and develop the airline into a leading carrier. Rayan who promised the employees to put the airline in the lead and among top world carriers, fulfilled his word adopting a sweeping plan. Expanding the network, modernising the fleet and rebuilding a strong infrastructure for a business and industry²were his²top²priorities.

The fleet was expanded by eight A300-B4 costing some $382 million. Three Boeing 767-200 and two B767-300 were added later to operate the long distance routes. Five B737-500 medium body aircrafts replaced the outdated B737-200 to serve domestic services. Moreover he went further to purchase three wide body B777-200 and three A340-200 to serve the Far East . The total cost of modernising the fleet by 2002 exceeded $3 billion.

Rayan expanded the network to more than²80 destinations around the world, reaching even Australia and the US with regular services. He also expanded the ground services, in-flight services and even established a hospital to invest in medical care for the employees and their families.

By 2002, EgyptAir staff²and the airline, affiliated to Transportation Ministry exceeded 25,000. In February 2002, a presidential decree stipulated the reformation of the Aviation Ministry and ex-air force commander²Ahmed Shafiq took office while Rayan ended his career and retired.²The airline soon was reshaped and converted into a holding company and all its activities were shaped into nine affiliated companies.

Shafiq used military colleagues whom he trusted to implement his ambitious project to reconstruct air transport into a competitive business and a strong industry. An ex-military general took over the airlne for five years and the airline started to make profits after years of losses.

Shafiq and his assistants focused on enhancing safety and quality records. The airline obtained IOSA and EASA certification and became the first in the Middle East to obtain accreditation from the International Air Transport Association IATA. In 2007, the world's biggest airlines group Star Alliance invited EgyptAir to join it and the Egyptian government pushed the move allocating the new state of the art terminal building TB3 at Cairo International for the Star member airlines operating from Egypt.

The fleet jumped from 32 aircrafts to the 74 modern planes now in use. The capital has been increased from LE3.093 billion to LE3.636 billion.²Last year however witnessed unprecedented losses²estimated by LE2.3 billion, due to the collapsed economy after the 25 January 2011 revolution. But this another story to tell.

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