Security at the Sharm el-Sheikh airport, and others throughout Egypt, has become a central concern as investigators probe the deadly crash of a Russian Airbus jet that killed all 224 people on board.
CAIRO — The airport at Egypt’s resort of Sharm el-Sheikh has long seen gaps in security, including a key baggage-scanning device that often is not functioning and lax searches at an entry gate for food and fuel bound for the planes, security officials at the airport said in interviews.
Security at the Sharm el-Sheikh airport, and others throughout Egypt, has become a central concern as investigators probe the Oct. 31 crash of a Russian plane 23 minutes after takeoff; all 224 on board died.
U.S. and British officials have cited intelligence reports as indicating the cause was likely a bomb planted on the Metrojet Airbus jet, and Russia has halted flights to Egypt until security at airports is improved.
Ayman el-Muqadem, the Egyptian official leading the multinational committee investigating the crash, confirmed some details about the flight at a news conference in Cairo on Saturday, including that the plane’s cockpit-voice recorder captured an unidentified sound in the last second it was operating. But he said it was premature to discuss any explanations for what had happened.
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“We can say that an in-flight breakup took place,” said el-Muqadem. “Saying more than this would be entering the space of inference.”
He avoided even uttering the word “bomb.” Pressed about alternative theories under consideration, he mentioned the possibility of a lithium battery in luggage, a spark in a fuel tank, metal fatigue in the plane’s fuselage or “the explosion of anything,” and then hurried away from reporters.
Besides Egypt, the investigation involves experts from Russia and the Western European countries where the plane was designed, built and leased. In recent days, the Russian authorities have, unusually, asked the FBI for assistance in the investigation, according to senior U.S. officials.
Interviews with seven officials involved in security at Sharm el-Sheikh airport, several for more than a decade, confirmed lax security at the facility. The seven spoke on condition of anonymity. Several said the malfunctioning scanner had been noted in security reports to superiors, but the machine was not replaced.
One of the officials, involved in security for planes, also pointed to bribe-taking by poorly paid policemen monitoring X-ray machines. “I can’t tell you how many times I have caught a bag full of drugs or weapons that they have let through for 10 euros or whatever,” he said.
Egypt’s aviation minister and his spokesman did not respond to repeated calls and texts for comment. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has said British officials sent a security team to evaluate the airport 10 months ago, in cooperation with Egyptian officials, and were satisfied with the results.
A spokesman for Britain’s Department of Transportation would not comment on any details of what the team found. But British Transport Secretary Patrick Mcloughlin suggested Friday that screening of checked bags was insufficient, telling the BBC that it had imposed its own additional checks on its flights “because we weren’t wholly satisfied with the way screening had been done.”
All bags are put through a scanner as passengers enter the Sharm el-Sheikh airport, and carry-on bags go through a second machine at the gate before boarding.
But a scanner in the sorting area for checked bags often is not working, all the airport officials said.
One of the officials said the breakdowns in the 10-year-old CTX scanner were because operators didn’t use it properly — “human stupidity,” he said — rather than technical faults. “I have seen people unplug it to save power,” he said.
Another of the officials said employees made sure the scanner was operating well enough whenever international experts came to review measures at the airport.
“We only care about appearances,” he said. “Once they (higher-ups) hear something is coming, suddenly everything gets fixed. … We wish we had visits every day.”
Several of the officials said it was “not that important” that the machine broke down because when it was working, it is only used to scan a sample of the bags, not all of them.
Inconsistencies are also common in Egypt. As guards at a metal detector at the Sharm el-Sheikh airport forced a departing passenger recently 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 Friday, an officer at an X-ray machine sent texts while he was scanning luggage. Another guard took a passenger at his word when he said the phone in his pocket had caused a metal detector to beep.
Britain, which sends tens of thousands of tourists to Egypt each year, has provided Egypt with more advanced detection equipment, and has insisted on precautions like the extra security checks at the boarding gate for Britain-bound flights. It requested further precautions after a specific threat arose around the Cairo airport this year.
“We have been working for some considerable time with the Egyptians on Sharm,” said a British official, adding that the Egyptian authorities had been responsive.
After the crash, the British took another look at Sharm el-Sheikh airport, and found problems with the way checked baggage was screened and safeguarded afterward, according to officials briefed on the matter.
Britain suspended flights for more than a day last week to put in place additional safeguards, including transporting passengers and luggage in separate planes. Several other countries followed suit, including Russia, which sends by far the most tourists to Sharm el-Sheikh.
Russian officials said Saturday that more than 70,000 of their citizens were in Egypt awaiting the arrival of jets being sent to carry them home. British officials said Saturday there were about 19,000 Britons left at Sharm el-Sheikh, and it would take 10 days to get them all home.
Egyptian authorities at Sharm el-Sheikh airport have begun questioning airport staff and ground crew who worked on the Russian flight and have placed some employees under surveillance, according to airport and security officials.
The officials from Sharm el-Sheikh airport said security checks were often lax at a gate into the facility used to bring in food and fuel. Local hotels provide food to some flights and deliver the food directly to the planes, they said.
Guards at the gate often let such deliveries go in without full searches because they know the delivery men, the officials said. Guards in a diligent mood are often bribed with a meal or two to pass the trucks unsearched to save time, they added.
“You are not going to search your friend or your friend’s friend,” one official said. “It’s rude.”
A retired senior official from Egypt’s Tourism Ministry, Magdy Salim, said airport guards regularly skip security checks for friends and co-workers and often don’t search people “out of respect to save their time if they look chic or if they come out of a fancy car.”
“Airport-security procedures in Egypt are almost (all) bad” and marred by “insufficiencies,” Salim said.