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Holy flights under friendly fire
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 15 - 04 - 2010

The dispute over suspending scheduled flights between Cairo and Madina has come too close to explode as the Saudis put the responsibility of the crisis on Egyptian aviation authorities, Amirah Ibrahim reports
Almost two weeks have passed, yet no near solution to the suspended omra flights between Madina and Cairo can be seen. Regrettably, Egyptian pilgrims pay the price.
Ten days ago, the Saudi authorities suspended scheduled flights operated by the national carrier, EgyptAir, between Cairo and the holy city of Madina. The Egyptians in their turn reacted by suspending the Saudi Airlines flights between the same two points. The result was that hundreds of Egyptian pilgrims who purchased flight tickets to Madina had to be transferred daily by buses and suffer a two-way trip -- each way takes about five hours -- to and from Jeddah.
"We are committed to transfer our passengers for free between Jeddah and Madina as they trusted EgyptAir in arranging their holy trip through Madina route," explained Samir Imbabi, EgyptAir Saudi Arabia area manager. "We used to manage the holy trips through Jeddah till 2006 when Madina route was opened to the Egyptian carriers. Now we return to Jeddah till the dispute is solved," Imbabi added.
The routes between the Saudi Kingdom and Egypt are the busiest in the Arab world with at least three million passengers transferred between the two countries last year, including hajj and omra pilgrim flights. According to Imbabi, EgyptAir is the second biggest operator to the Saudi destinations after the Saudi Airlines. "We operate 98 flights to Jeddah, 25 to Riyadh and 17 to Dammam in addition to the suspended daily flight to Madina," he explained.
The trigger for the action by the Saudi General Authority for Civil Aviation (GACA) was the refusal by its Egyptian counterpart to permit two low cost Saudi airlines, Nas Air and Sama, to be awarded landing slots at Cairo International Airport.
"Both of us are paying the price for something we are not guilty of," stated Captain Alaa Ashour, chairman of the national carrier EgyptAir. "We are not involved in the dispute between Cairo International and the Saudi authorities. We never intervened to request a ban against any airline to operate to any Egyptian airport. We have close cooperation and a strong relationship with the Saudi national carrier Saudi Airlines with which we have a code-share agreement to sell tickets on each other's planes. Our IT technical team is currently working with their Saudi counterparts to assist the sister airline to convert its IT system to AMADUS. Thus we both lose," Ashour regreted. According to him, EgyptAir daily losses due to the suspension of Madina route are estimated at LE300,000.
The dispute deepened when the Saudi authorities allowed two new airlines, Lebanese MEA and Royal Jordanian airline, to operate to Madina airport whereas they suspended the Egyptian flights on the pretext that the airport's capacity is limited.
On Monday the Saudi GACA made a detailed official statement that set the dispute on fire. The statement revealed the real reasons behind suspending the operation to Madina, as described by GACA spokesman Khaled El-Khaibari.
"We expected the Egyptian authorities to honour both their international obligations as a member of the International Air Transport Association and the terms of the bilateral deal it signed with Saudi Arabia in 2006," stated Al-Khaibari. "The kingdom opened all its airports with no exceptions to all Egyptian carriers regardless of classification, be it budget airliners or low cost carriers, or regular operators."
According to GACA, the Saudi authorities also allowed a private Egyptian airline to operate to Yanbu, Abha and Jeddah.
"When the Egyptians insisted on not fulfilling their obligations we decided to apply the agreement by text which limits operation to Madina according to the airport's capacity. Thus the Egyptian flights were suspended. Then the Egyptians moved to break the agreement when they suspended the Saudi flights between Cairo and Madina. Moreover, the two Saudi budget airlines, NAS and SAMA, were forced to reduce their scheduled flights to Alexandria and Assiut," El-Khaibari added.
The statement criticised the Egyptian aviation authorities as being concerned at the impact that budget airlines are having on the national carrier EgyptAir. It also indicated that both NAS and SAMA had reportedly arranged to peg their fares to those currently charged by Saudi Airlines and EgyptAir, but to no avail.
"This is against a fair competitive environment and against the millions of Egyptian pilgrims and workers who transfer between Egyptian and Saudi destinations. They risk their lives on cheaper marine and road trips. Budget airlines also will help increasing Saudi tourism to Egypt, encouraging Saudi families with large families to travel more to Egypt," El-Khaibari justified the Saudi position.
Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Chairman of the Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority Sameh El-Hefni said that the Egyptian official position was against heightening the dispute. But he explained that the crisis will remain on hold until the Saudis make a positive move forward. "The Saudi explanation is misleading. The Saudi flights were suspended to react to the suspension of Egyptian flights to Madina. We suspended a Saudi flight for each suspended Egyptian flight. Thus we are not the ones who have not honoured their obligations," explained El-Hefni.
The open skies agreements are applied according to the regulating rules set by each airport. "Aviation authorities give the approval to airliners to operate among countries. But it is each airport's policy that accepts or denies the operation by any airline. It is Cairo International's set regulations not to license low cost carriers to operate through it. It is the same case when airlines request operation to London for example. The authorities negotiate operation rights but Heathrow Airport has the right to accept or refuse according to its capacity and its set regulations," El-Hefni explained.
Against Saudi claims that the Egyptian authorities adopt protective policies in favour of the national carrier which bases its operation from the capital's airport, El-Hefni revealed that a Saudi private airline, not a low cost airline, was granted permission to fly to Cairo International three years ago, but later it stopped flights as they proved not profitable.
"If the Saudi airlines convert into regular operators that operate flights with different seating -- economy, business and first class -- and allowed their tickets to be exchanged for other airlines' tickets, then the airport will permit them in," he concluded.
As for this week, the unfortunate rift between the two Arab skies will not be healed easily.

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