x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Exodus fuels confusion at Cairo airport as thousands try to leave

Terminal crowded and passengers upset over 'abrupt' flight cancellations and lack of information.

Confusion reigns at Cairo International Airport as passengers try to leave Egypt yesterday.
Confusion reigns at Cairo International Airport as passengers try to leave Egypt yesterday.

CAIRO // Confusion reigned at Cairo International Airport yesterday as thousands of people scrambled to leave the unrest that has rocked Egypt during the past week.

Passengers complained about abrupt flight cancellations and confusion among airport staff, while dozens of people slept overnight in the airport terminals.

Queues at Egypt Air's customer service desks stretched outside one terminal. Frustrated customers, waiting in line for hours, said that the carrier's staff could not explain why flights were not departing at their scheduled time.

"We've been waiting here for four days. We had tickets to Copenhagen, Milan, Casablanca, and still nothing," said Khadija Ahmed, 40, a Danish citizen who planned to fly out with her teenaged son on Egypt Airlines.

Airline staff, speaking on condition of anonymity, blamed the disruptions on crew members who had heeded national calls by opposition groups for a general strike. They did not know when, or if, scheduled flights would depart.

Foreign nationals complained of poorly organised evacuation efforts by their embassies. Hampering their plans was the Egyptian government's intentional disruption of domestic telecommunications, including internet access, as well as afternoon curfews, and roadblocks erected by the military.

"So far, the evacuation plan is not much help," said Bob Dixon, 64, an American who, travelling with his wife, Alissa, expressed confusion as to when the evacuation ordered by his government would begin.

"I've been told the embassy's staff here is all gone," he said. His daughter has been helping them out by "giving us a special number in Washington to call. But when you call this number, they tell you to go look up the information on the internet".

Holly Marshall, 28, a resident of Sydney, Australia, said a group of compatriots waiting at the airport could not make contact with an airport-bound convoy organised by the Australian consulate.

"Apparently, the convoy's on the way, but we've lost contact with them," she said.

On the other hand, she pointed out, nationals of other countries, including Germany and Britain, had either been successfully evacuated or were on the verge of it. She had been waiting at Terminal 3 since the day before, following an evening in Cairo that she described as "very frightening".

"You could see the looters and robbers just outside," she said. "They had to board up the windows of our hotel."

Some passengers seemed sanguine about Egypt's unrest and the resulting flight delays and cancellations.

Roberto Al Bano, 32, arrived on January 27 for a romantic getaway. Although he said he spent a day riding a horse near the pyramids of Giza, most of his time had been spent trying to buy a plane ride out.

Even so, he praised Egyptians for their patience. "Even the army guys are polite to you," he said. "For some of the time I spent here, I really enjoyed it."

There were also rumours of a mass exodus of Egypt's wealthy citizens from the nearby Terminal 4. According to many at the airport, seats on private jets could be purchased at exorbitant rates.

Some described the alleged exodus as indicative of Egypt's deep socio-economic divides between rich and poor.

"They're leaving their country and taking all their money with them," said one employee of an airport pharmacy, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "I'm glad they're going."

Some Egyptians in Terminal 3 seemed to have second thoughts as they prepared to fly abroad.

Mahmoud Salem, 25, a student of physical therapy at Cairo University, contemplated returning to Cairo and its protests yesterday as he sat in the departure lounge. "I have my passport, ticket, my visa, but I want to stay in Cairo," he said. "The people are coming together now, acting as one hand" against the government.

His older brother had flown to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, hours before to meet their father, and Mr Salem said he was supposed to follow.

"The people are no longer afraid, and there's security with the army in place," he said. "I don't know what to do."