Major gaps in security reported at Egyptian airports

Concerns escalate in light of Russian jet crash last month

Police inspected cars Saturday as they entered the airport serving the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Asmaa Waguih/Reuters
Police inspected cars Saturday as they entered the airport serving the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt — The airport is surrounded by a wall topped with barbed wire. Armed sentries are stationed at its entrance, and passengers pass through two security screenings before reaching departure gates; before a recent departing flight, there were no fewer than eight uniformed guards standing around the checkpoint.

But potential inconsistencies in airport security here and elsewhere in Egypt have never been hard to detect.

As guards at a metal detector here forced a departing passenger on a recent trip to throw out a pack of safety razors found in his luggage, an airport cafe worker breezed past the checkpoint without any search or inspection.


At the Cairo airport on Friday, an officer at an X-ray machine sent text messages while he was scanning luggage. Another guard took a passenger at his word when he said it was his phone that had caused a metal detector to beep.

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Those potential gaps are under a spotlight, as preliminary evidence from the crash of a Russian charter jet on Oct. 31 points to the possibility of a bombing, and several countries have restricted flights to and from Sharm el-Sheikh. Theories about how a bomb might have gotten onto the plane, whose passengers and crew were almost all Russians, have focused on the possibility that an airport worker might have been involved.

The Egyptian authorities have repeatedly refused to offer or confirm any theories about the cause of the disaster. At a news conference Saturday, they said they were still considering all possibilities, and that no conclusions could be reached until the investigation had run its course.

Airport officials have been trying to reassure travelers by letting foreign reporters tour and film the airport, including its baggage scanning facility. President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt said in London last week that Egyptian airport security authorities willingly complied with specific requests the British government made 10 months ago about improving procedures at Sharm el-Sheikh, a resort city where many Britons vacation. “We have cooperated with them,” Sissi said. “And they checked the security actions; they were happy with that.”

Still, in recent years, aviation officials from a number of European countries have found multiple areas of concern at Sharm el-Sheikh, according to officials with knowledge of the inspectors’ findings. The weaknesses included X-ray and explosives-detection equipment that was out of date, out of order or infrequently maintained, and staff members who had not been adequately trained to use it, according to one official who reviewed the reports.


Shortcomings were found in the screening of both passengers and checked baggage, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the airport assessments were not public.

While declining to discuss specifics, the British official said the Egyptian authorities had been responsive to the concerns that were raised and addressed them to Britain’s satisfaction at the time. “We set out a number of measures that we thought would be helpful and that should be put in place, and the Egyptians worked very closely with us on those,” the official said.

The crash of the Russian-operated Airbus jetliner last weekend killed all 224 people on board. The plane broke up in flight about 23 minutes after takeoff, an Egyptian official said at a briefing in Cairo on Saturday, scattering debris over a large stretch of desert.

Signs have increasingly pointed to an explosion on board the aircraft, including a loud sound heard in the last second recorded by the plane’s cockpit voice recorder, which Egyptian officials confirmed Saturday.

Several countries have halted flights to Sharm el-Sheikh, including Russia and Britain, leaving a sputtering tourism industry in danger of collapse.


Only a small number of European airlines operated direct flights to Sharm el-Sheikh before the crash, flying from cities in Britain, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. Airlines from some countries, including France and the Netherlands, stopped offering direct service in recent years, in part out of security concerns, European officials said.

Since the crash, European governments seek further enhancements to security, including better screening of carry-on and checked baggage, before they resume flights.

Countries organizing special flights to bring stranded travelers home have told them that any baggage other than carry-on items must be left behind, to be forwarded later.

“It’s an evolving situation, and we need to keep it under review,” the British official said.

A cluster of soldiers and security guards stood at the entrance to Sharm el-Sheikh airport Saturday in a show of increased vigilance, screening drivers and passengers arriving in cars and buses. The Egyptian military also took control of registering stranded Russian passengers, according to Arkady Dvorkovich, the Russian deputy prime minister who is charge of the efforts to repatriate Russian from Egypt. He said that there were some 79,000 Russians who needed transportation home from there, from Cairo, and from the Red Sea resort of Hurghada.

Egyptian officials told Reuters that they were checking airport security-camera video from the day of the crash to see whether someone might have sneaked past security officials, or if there was “any unusual activity among policemen or airport staff” at Sharm el-Sheikh.

But the security officers at the airport entrance also barred several journalists from entering the airport on Saturday, a sign that the government may be growing wary of the heightened international attention to the airport and its operations.