What Led To Egyptian Attack That Killed Mexican Tourists?

Though the Egyptian military is still mum, new details are emerging in the deadly air strike in the Western Desert that mistook a group of Mexican tourists for Islamist terrorists.

In Egypt's Western Desert
In Egypt's Western Desert
Isabel Esterman

CAIRO â€" Confusion still reigns Tuesday over the details of a mistaken military airstrike on a convoy of Mexican tourists in the Western Desert of Egypt that killed at least 12 people, as official Egyptian sources largely remain silent and on-the-ground sources provide conflicting details as to what actually happened.

Egypt's Interior Ministry issued a statement early Monday morning admitting that an accidental attack on four cars in a restricted area killed 12 people and injured 10. The Interior Ministry has not issued any further statement since then, while the military has yet to issue one at all.

Instead, the military’s communications team appears to be proceeding with business as usual. On Monday afternoon, the Egyptian Armed Forces spokesperson posted a laudatory account of Major General Sedky Sobhy’s visit to the Armed Forces’ Western Division, in which he praised the division’s morale and determination.

The president’s office has not issued a statement, but sent a delegation to the Mexican Embassy in Cairo to offer well wishes for Mexico’s upcoming independence day, the privately owned newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm reported.

As defense officials stay silent, questions are swirling as to how and why the tourists were attacked. State sources have insisted that the convoy entered a restricted area without permission, thus shifting some of the blame onto the tourism operators. But tourism sector officials and people on the ground have said the issue is not so black-and-white, blaming security forces for failing to communicate that the convoy was entering a dangerous area.

Tribal leaders speak

Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry stated that the tourists were killed when they entered a restricted area during an ongoing security operation against terrorists.

Local tribal leader Atef Sabry told Mada Masr that the Air Force became active in the area after armed attackers kidnapped a local guide near Bohour on Thursday.

The foreign minister said the tourists were traveling in four-by-four vehicles similar to those of the suspects, thus prompting the Air Forces to attack the convoy. Survivors have said security forces bombed and opened fire on them from an airplane and helicopters, according to a Mexican foreign affairs ministry statement.

But Moataz al-Sayed, a member of the Egyptian ministry’s tourism advisory board and former head of the General Tourist Guides Syndicate, told Mada Masr that the convoy had received permissions and clearances for its trip into the desert. Neither their police escort, nor the soldiers at the military checkpoints that the convoy passed through, informed the tourists that they were entering a restricted area, he claimed.

Sayed said the tour guides could not have known which areas were off-limits. "There were no signs or flags, and none of the checkpoints warned them against any restrictions," he added.

Hassan al-Nahla, head of the General Tourist Guides Syndicate, issued a statement Monday lambasting the police for failing to coordinate with the Tourism Ministry.

“Why would the tourism police allow an escort with the group and allow us to go to the restricted areas, without enough information on the events in the area over the past two days?,” he asked.

Heading to their hotel

The convoy was attacked about 90 kilometers northeast of Wahat, according to Hamada Hashem, a tour guide working in the area. He told Mada Masr that visits to the area don’t require permits, but that the military has restricted desert trips in the whole of the Western Desert since a terrorist attack on a checkpoint in Farafra killed 22 soldiers in 2014. Since then, the military occasionally allowed trips when the situation was calm, Hashem said, but otherwise the desert activity has largely diminished.

Sayed said the group was on their way back to their hotel when the attack occurred. While en route, the group may have headed to a well-known lunch spot 2 km off the road, according to Hashem â€" a spot tour guides frequently stop at on the way from Cairo.

The tour company did give an itinerary to security forces announcing that the group was traveling down the desert road toward the Qasr al-Bawity hotel, according to Sabry â€" but the itinerary did not include the alleged detour to the off-road lunch stop.

A picture of the purported itinerary has circulated on social media, and appears to show that the tourism company did notify the police that the convoy would be traveling toward that hotel on Sunday.

Sabry said a surviving Egyptian driver told him shortly after the attack that when the convoy pulled off-road, the driver and the accompanying police escort walked out of sight behind a sand dune to relieve themselves.

The attack happened at this time, which was around 1:30 p.m., Sabry said.

Hashem believes the tourism operators broke established protocol by taking the trip without coordinating with the military, just one day after militants allegedly attacked military forces close to their destination. Sabry believes the attack came down to simple bad luck.

The vast Western Desert, which stretches from the Nile Valley to the Libyan border, is a haven for both Islamist militants and tourists wishing to visit Egypt’s famous oases and the otherworldly scenery of the Black and White Deserts.

The Bahariya Oasis region where the incident occurred is also a popular desert safari attraction. The Tourism Ministry’s official website describes the oasis as “a lush haven set in the midst of an unforgiving desert,” and encourages would-be tourists to go on hikes, haggle with locals, visit ancient ruins and enjoy solitude in the wilderness. The site proclaims, “Your options in Bahariya are wider than you can imagine.”

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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