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Hijacking, tourist bombing – return to the bad old days?

February 19, 2014 Aviation, Headline News No Comments Email Email

egtmedia59The bombing of a tourist bus in Egypt and the hijacking of an aircraft over Europe a day later has sent shivers through the tourism industry.

Commercial aircraft were once hijacked regularly, culminating in the 9/11 attack on New York in 2011, after which airline security was massively beefed up. Similarly, attacks on tourists in the hope of destroying a country’s tourist industry are rare, but they happen. Everyone is hoping the two are isolated incidents.

The hijacking on Monday of an Ethiopian Airlines jetliner by a co-pilot seeking asylum focuses attention on the insider threat. Are airline crew able to do such things more easily than passengers? The co-pilot apparently locked the pilot out of the cockpit when the pilot left to go to the toilet. It seems that the co-pilot, 31-year-old Hailemedehin Abera Tagegn, then took over the plane.FIS-250x250

The aircraft and its 202 passengers landed safely in Geneva, whereupon the co-pilot dropped out of the cockpit window on a rope. He has been arrested.

The co-pilot’s action caused panic on the aircraft, according to passengers. Reddit user OK3n said he woke to the sound of the plane’s oxygen masks going down. Then a “deep and angry” voice came through the plane’s intercom saying “SIT DOWN, PUT YOUR MASKS ON, I’M CUTTING THE OXYGEN,” three times.  Oxygen masks descended, oxygen levels fluctuated and passengers feared the worst, New York-based editor Matt Essert reported on PolicyMic.com.

Already, attention is focussing on glaring holes in security. Italian and French fighter jets were scrambled to escort the Ethiopian Airlines plane through their respective airspaces but when the airliner reached Swiss airspace there were no Swiss fighter jets around – because the hijacking happened in the early morning and, almost unbelievably, the Swiss air force operates only during office hours.

Incredibly, the Swiss air force operates on a 9 to 5 basis. News service AFP quoted Swiss air force spokesman Laurent Savary confirming the air force was available to respond to such incidents only during business hours, reportedly from 8am until noon, then a break for lunch, and on duty again from 1.30 to 5pm.

Launching an attack or hijacking planes outside those hours is considered unsporting.

A more sinister event, because lives were lost, was the bus bombing in Egypt a day earlier  which killed three South Korean tourists and the bus driver. There is fear that the attack may mark a return to a militant strategy of targeting tourism and tourists.

Egyptian tourism is already in tatters, with the country racked by political turmoil and regular rioting. Much of the Middle East is dangerous for tourism, with a few notable exceptions like Jordan and Israel, which are still safe.

The bomb in Egypt ripped through the bus carrying 31 South Korean tourists (all members of a church group) and their guide near an Egyptian border crossing with Israel in south Sinai.

Three South Koreans – two men and a woman – were killed along with the Egyptian driver. Another 13 were injured.

The South Korean ambassador to Egypt, Kim Young-So, told Seoul’s MBN TV channel that the bombing appeared to be a suicide attack – a hallmark of Islamic militancy.

South Korea has issued a total travel ban on the Sinai region and the Gulf of Aqaba, while urging its nationals elsewhere in Egypt to take extra precautions or leave if possible. Other countries are doing likewise and Australia has issued an updated advisory.

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) maintained its “Reconsider your need to travel” advice level for Egypt and updated its advisory as follows: 

Terrorism. On 16 February a bomb explosion on a tourist bus in Taba, South Sinai, close to the Israeli border, killed four people and injured many. Australians in Egypt should avoid all demonstrations, protests and large crowds as they may turn violent and closely monitor the media for information on events and developments that may affect your security and safety.  In the lead-up to presidential elections expected in May 2014, the situation is likely to remain tense and political violence could occur at short notice.  We advise Australians to reconsider their need to travel to Egypt overall due to ongoing civil unrest and not to travel to the Governorate of North Sinai.  Australians in Egypt who are concerned for their safety should consider leaving by commercial means.

Meanwhile, the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) strongly condemned the bomb attack.

“I am appalled by this horrible act of violence,” said UNWTO Secretary-General, Taleb Rifai.

“Our thoughts at this difficult moment are with the families and friends of the victims and the Government and people of Egypt. The livelihoods of millions people in Egypt depend on the tourism sector and this is a direct attack on the hopes of these people as Egypt works to reinforce its tourism sector.”

Written by : Peter Needham

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