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Fathi keeps faith with his vision...

Posted 5 April 2018 · Add Comment

As EgyptAir made major equipment announcements at the Dubai Air Show, Egypt’s aviation minister, Sherif Fathi, talked to Alan Dron about prospects for the national carrier and the development of the country’s aviation industry.

As someone with three decades of experience in the aviation industry, Sherif Fathi says his background is undoubtedly an advantage in his job… but also causes him occasional anguish.
“It requires a strong will to prevent yourself from getting involved in the detail. It takes great effort to force yourself to allow the CEOs and chairman under you to work freely and make their own decisions, without intervention,” he said.
“I do the target-setting; the vision, the strategy. We have scheduled reviews where they come and present where they are and the achievements so far.”
He admits, however, that occasionally: “I get involved in nitty-gritty that I shouldn’t get involved with, because I know the answers.”
Naturally, state-owned national carrier EgyptAir forms a major part of Fathi’s responsibilities. Despite difficult times since the 2011 revolution, which has seen passenger numbers dip on several occasions, he believes the airline has managed its difficulties very well. Financial losses have been contained and its strong network in the Middle East has given it the ability to cope.
“However,” he said, “EgyptAir, even before the revolution, did not have the right strategic plan that would allow it to cope with the big change and growth of competitors in the Middle East and Africa.”
Some airlines were adding aircraft and frequencies every month, while EgyptAir’s growth was much slower, with some markets being under-serviced, or not covered at all.
“And the fleet requires modernisation,” he added. “Not that it is old – 60% is quite young – but the plan we have will have an impact as of 2019-20.”
Just 24 hours after Fathi made these comments, the airline announced a series of major orders for aircraft.
One lingering shadow over EgyptAir is the fate of flight MS804, an Airbus A320 that crashed into the Mediterranean in May 2016 as it neared Cairo on a flight from Paris Charles De Gaulle Airport.
The accident investigation is still under way, so there are strict limits on what Fathi can say. However, he says that the government has dealt with the tragedy with “complete transparency and followed best practices for such cases. We’ve kept the public aware of all the developments that can be shared.”
When explosive traces were found on the wreckage, the incident changed from a technical to a criminal investigation, with the prosecuting authorities occasionally asking for clarification of aspects of the case.
Inevitably, many people want definitive answers to aspects of the crash and Fathi says he understands their frustration at not receiving them. However, he added: “Let’s be realistic. I haven’t seen an accident like this resolved within a year or so.”
The wreckage had to be retrieved from the seabed and he twice extended the length of the mission of the vessels searching for the remains of the Airbus deep beneath the waves.
Logic and best practice suggested that the report issued on the first anniversary of the crash could be realistically assumed to be the last word on the affair, “but we’ve not done that. We’ve kept it open until further conclusions can be reached by our procedures.”
Beyond EgyptAir, Egypt has a small but active private airline sector. However, Fathi would like them to be more adventurous. “Most of the private companies are very much focused on operating to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Dubai,” he noted.
There are great opportunities in Egypt’s tourism sector, with flights operating direct into upper Egyptian and Red Sea destinations such as Luxor, Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada. Some companies are tapping into this, with strong traffic flows between Germany and Hurghada, for example, while others are going as far afield as China and Japan to bring in visitors, with their much-needed foreign currency, but not quickly enough. “They need to shift their focus from places like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to different parts of the world,” believed Fathi.
In a geo-politically sensitive part of the world such as the Middle East, there is often conflict between the civil and military aviation authorities over allocation of airspace; this is particularly a problem in the Gulf. However, Egypt has avoided such problems, said Fathi. “I can’t complain about that at all. We work closely together and have an efficient process, in my opinion. We consult each other and work together.” He cannot recall any delay to any civil aircraft that can be put down to problems with defence airspace.
A major issue Fathi has had to deal with has been security. This was raised following the crash of a Russian Metrojet Airbus A321 shortly after departing from Sharm El-Sheikh in what was almost certainly a terrorist attack, although Egyptian investigators have not conclusively ruled out other causes. This led to Russia and the UK halting flights to Red Sea airports. The two countries still have a flight ban in place, although the Russian restriction may have been lifted by the time this article is published.
The security issue re-emerged in 2017 when the US and UK banned the carriage of large personal electronic devices (PEDs), such as laptops and tablet computers, in aircraft cabins from several Middle East countries, following fears that these could be used to hide explosives that could bring down an airliner.
When the ban was announced, Fathi picked up the telephone and called his UK counterpart. He told him that he was prepared to have passengers boarding UK-bound aircraft in Egypt show their PEDs to security staff and have them individually tested for explosive residues before taking them into the cabin.
“That wasn’t accepted initially,” he said, but eventually the ‘solution’ arrived at by the UK authorities was precisely the one he had suggested at the start of the episode. “What we proposed would have saved a lot of time and rules.”
What he found particularly frustrating was that he asked questions of the UK authorities about the problem and could not get clear answers. For example, he raised the widely voiced concern among airlines and aviation safety specialists over the wisdom of placing large numbers of lithium batteries, used to power PEDs, in the cargo hold.
The potential risks of lithium batteries are well-known and, if consigned to the hold, there would be no way of dealing with them if they overheated and caught fire. Safety specialists were particularly concerned over the risks of placing multiple batteries in close proximity to each other in a cargo hold container. “In my opinion, it was, maybe, not the best or safest decision,” he said diplomatically.
Egypt has put in place new security measures to reassure the UK and US governments, but Fathi says that safety is more than just physical checks of PEDs. He looks at the problem of airport security as a quality management issue.
“If you want to succeed in airport security, you have to look at the organisation, leadership, training, documentation registration and all the decisions you take. You have to look at the personnel, and the way you select and train them. And you have always to look for continuous improvement and continually assess what you are doing.
“I think that’s what we’ve managed to do over the past year-and-a-half. I see that from the feedback I get from auditors.”
He makes the point that, even when the PED incident began, Egypt was among the top 20 nations in the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) security ratings and the events did not stop foreign airlines from flying to the country.
 

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