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Keep on truckin'
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 29 - 04 - 2010

Iceland's volcanic cloud dealt a blow to air transport business in Egypt, but plans to expand are full steam ahead, reports Amirah Ibrahim
Aviation authorities refused to slow expanding plans in response to the recent crisis which harmed the industry, and insisted on resuming projects in progress. On Sunday, the national carrier took delivery of its second Boeing 777-300 which will serve the Tokyo route. It even announced it intends to continue with delivery schedules of more planes this year, including two B777s by the end of this year and two A330s this summer.
Construction work at Alexandria's Borg Al-Arab airport and Upper Egypt's Sohag airport are ongoing as scheduled.
On Monday, 50 MPs paid a visit to aviation facilities in Cairo where they met with Aviation Minister Ahmed Shafiq and his top aides to discuss the trouble caused by the volcanic cloud. The delegation which included members of the Transportation Committee and Arab Affairs Committee toured Cairo International Airport's TB3, the new air navigation apron control, the national carrier's technical support facilities and the civil aviation authority's crisis management unit.
"We are satisfied with what we have learned and seen today," commented Hamdi El-Tahan, head of the Transportation Committee at the end of the five-hour tour. "I have witnessed many crises with aviation through the last two decades and witnessed attempts to get through them. I am glad to see that at last Egypt's aviation business is regaining its rights and pioneering status," explained El-Tahan, an ex-pilot and senior aviation expert.
Aviation Minister Shafiq warned last week that the ash cloud could affect air transport seriously and bring much more damage to poor countries than to rich ones. "We are in the middle of a storm," he said in a press conference three days after the crisis. As the crisis abated, Shafiq took a deep breath. "We are riding the 'tail' of the crisis unless the volcano erupts once again," he commented on a second press conference on Thursday.
Air transport business has been trying to overcome the negative influences of the troubling 18 months when the world's credit crunch hit the business followed by the H1N1 pandemic which crippled air travel.
Shafiq declined to discuss the means to compensate Egyptian airliners which suffered losses. "We are all losers. Who should compensate the airports, air navigation and the national carrier?" Shafiq asked.
Figures released by the Egyptian Aviation Authority showed that the air navigation business was losing 50,000 Euros each day, Cairo International Airport's losses exceeded $100,000 in addition to LE1.8 million, similar to other airports which lost roughly $600,000.
The International Air Transport Association warned that the industry would need three years to overcome the consequences. It is estimated the industry lost $1.7 billion.
European airliners criticised their governments for poor crisis management. British Airways and other European airlines called on the EU to compensate them for their heavy losses.
Asked if Egyptian airlines and airports would join European airlines in their plea, Shafiq explained he was against this. "Our losses are not that heavy to fight a battle which would only bring us hostility with Europe," he replied. "I favour extra cautious measures if they secure lives. I am certain that if the crisis had resulted in even one accident with fatal causalities, airlines would have acted in a different way and the European air transport bodies would have paid a high price."
Due to the volcanic cloud, EgyptAir suspended 10 major routes to Europe, including the most profitable London, Paris and Frankfurt routes. Yet, the airline said it could not give figures for losses so far.
"We had to cut 0 routes in addition to freight business," explained Hussein Massoud, chairman of EgyptAir Holding Company. "But estimating the losses is subject to a number of factors. We have nine affiliated companies, seven of which were affected by the crisis. Each operates a different business; two airlines sell seats, run duty free shops, operate a tourism branch, perform catering, ground and freight services. Each company calculates its profits and losses in a different way in accordance with its operational guidelines."
According to Massoud, the two airlines, EgyptAir and Express, suspended their flights gradually and not in the same way as European carriers which had to ground their fleets.
"The first day we suspended two flights, then the second day seven flights, the third day 12 flights and on the fourth day 19 flights were suspended. Suspending flights means that we missed expected profits but did not suffer direct losses. Our operations to Europe is estimated at 31 per cent of the total. Meanwhile, we kept our operations to Africa, Far East, US and Middle East destinations as scheduled," Massoud explained.
When European airports were reopened, the carrier launched extra operations to help the stranded passengers. "In one day, we operated three flights with B777s, carrying about 1,000 passengers. That would be equal to eight medium aircraft which we usually operate to those routes. On the other hand, while the normal load factor is around 65-75 per cent on some of those routes, all our flights to Europe following the crisis were 100 per cent load factor. This is somehow a compensation for the losses."
As for the stranded passengers, no complaints surfaced when the crisis was over. "We have not received any request to operate additional flights to any destination," explained Massoud. "In fact, a considerable amount of stranded passengers converted their flights to other routes so as to reach their homes through other means."
The average reduction in traffic to Egyptian airports was 30 per cent. According to Ibrahim Manaa, head of the Egyptian Holding Company for Airports and Air Navigation, which supervises all 22 Egyptian airports, the five-day crisis brought many lessons to be learned.
"Extensive coordination on both vertical and horizontal levels is of a great benefit to the industry during crises," Manaa explained. "Our revenues were reduced as part of the fleet stopped landing and taking off to Europe. But at the same time, the transit traffic increased to 90 per cent. Some planes changed their navigating routes to pass through Egyptian air space instead of European air space and thus we collected more fees."


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