Egypt tourists' frustration mounts as flights from resort town canceled
CAIRO — International passengers departing Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh continued to line up for flights Sunday as the first of three teams of Russian inspectors was dispatched to the country to examine airport security after the Oct. 31 airline disaster.
The Russian flight's crash in the Sinai Peninsula, which killed all 224 people onboard, continues to generate fallout, as the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the jet's downing and American and British officials say intelligence shows the flight was likely taken down by a bomb on board.
Thousands of foreigners have been stranded in Sharm el-Sheikh since the plane crash. Flights resumed during the weekend to take them home, but delays were lengthy. EasyJet Airways, a British airline, said passengers should expect a three- to four-day delay.
Britain and several airlines have stopped normally scheduled flights to the resort, and Russia has suspended all flights to Egypt because of security concerns.
Many travelers complained about a lack of information.
“The thing is what we've heard from Monarch (Airlines) is ‘Go to the airport,' but on all the British government websites and BBC News it says, ‘Don't go to the airport.' What should we do?” asked Hannah Pierce, a real estate agent from London whose flight was scheduled for Monday. She was told it likely would be canceled. “It's just frustrating because we don't really know what's going on. We've been here since Monday, and we've had no contact with anyone other than our families telling us what's going on. It's a bit of a nightmare.”
Joanna Baker and her boyfriend were scheduled to fly out Friday after a week of vacationing in the Red Sea town.
Their airline has paid for them to stay in a luxurious hotel, but the resort's private beach and Sharm el-Sheikh's warm, sunny weather are no longer an attraction.
“We feel like we are grounded,” Baker, 22, said as she played a game of table tennis with her boyfriend.
“We had a great time until Thursday, but now we are frustrated. The hotel is great, the people are great, but we just don't know when we are going.”
Despite their frustration, Pierce and Baker said they feel safe.
A spokesman for Egypt's Aviation Ministry, Mohamed Rahma, dismissed accounts of inadequate security, saying, “Sharm el-Sheikh is one of the safest airports in the world,” without elaborating.
Other Egyptian authorities blame anti-Egypt bias for the allegations of lax security. Those sensitivities were on display Sunday as foreign camera crews were prevented from filming in Sharm el-Sheikh airport, along the city's main tourist strip in Naama Bay or in other public spaces.
Despite strong government denials, the suggestions of a major security breach at Sharm el-Sheikh airport have gained traction among some Egyptians. On Saturday, an Associated Press reporter at Cairo airport witnessed several passengers yelling at security personnel to pay more attention to the X-ray scanner, with one man repeatedly shouting, “This is what happened in Sharm!”
Officials at the Sharm el-Sheikh airport said the facility has long had gaps in security, including a key baggage scanning device that often does not function and lax searches at an entry gate for food and fuel for the planes. One security official said drugs and weapons slip through security checks at the airport because poorly paid police officers who monitor X-ray machines can be bribed.
Lawmakers weigh in
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said on ABC's “This Week” that if it's confirmed the plane was brought down by an Islamic State bomb, then “ISIS has now fully eclipsed al-Qaida as the gravest terrorist threat in the world.”
British Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond told the BBC that if the bomb is confirmed, it will require a potential rethinking of airport security in all areas where the extremist group is active.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich did not give details on what specific security issues the inspections teams would be examining.
Meanwhile, more than 1,000 mourners packed the landmark St. Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russia, for a memorial service for the victims. Attendees lit candles and stood in silence as the cathedral bells rang 224 times to remember each victim.
“We came to the service today with all our family to support the people in our common grief,” said Galina Stepanova, 58.
Stepanova said she believes the plane was downed by a bomb, but said Russia should continue its airstrike campaign against the Islamic State and other terrorists in Syria.
“We have a rightful cause to help Syria in its fight against terrorism,” she said.
Mikhail Vishnyakov, a 42-year-old sales manager who attended the service with his family, said he did not want to rush to conclusions about the cause of the crash.
“If it was a terrorist act, I don't think it was directed exactly against Russia. It could well be directed against any other plane of any other country. It was for a good reason that other countries began to take their tourists from Egypt,” Vishnyakov said.
The Associated Press and USA Today contributed to this report.