Security stepped up at Cairo airport to counter charges of laxness

Security at Cairo Airport has recently become a sensitive issue. After last Saturday's hijacking of an Egyptian airliner, authorities stepped up security at Cairo's airport. But, airline officials and passengers say, security is still not up to par and possible security hazards still exist.

``Security is as tight as we can expect, given where we are and the fact that seven million people pass through this airport each year,'' said an executive of a foreign airline company, who did not wish to be named. ``But the airport has some weak areas.''

Last week's EgyptAir hijacking, as well as the hijacking of a Trans World Airlines jet in June, actually took place after the jets took off from Athens Airport in Greece. Greek authorities, insisting that the weapons used by the hijackers could not have been put on the planes in Athens, have implied that security at Cairo Airport had been lax. The Egyptians have consistently denied that arms were smuggled onto planes in Cairo Airport, and maintain they have top security.

After October's hijacking of the Italian ship, Achille Lauro, the authorities at Cairo Airport increased the number of security checks for all departing passengers. Passengers leaving Egypt through the airport are now subject to about eight checks, including passport verification, body checks, and checks of hand luggage both by X-ray machines and physical searches.

But passengers flying frequently to and from Egypt have noticed that the quality of the checks is inconsistent.

Bill Brooker, an employee of an American oil company who flies in and out of Egypt once a month, said that security is frequently lax on flights leaving from the domestic terminal to other towns in Egypt. The passengers are supposed to go through physical and mechanical checks. But, Mr. Brooker, said the checks were only operative once in the last six times he has flown out of the domestic terminal. Once a passenger is on the tarmac for a domestic flight, the international tarmac is only a few steps awa y. No physical barrier separates the two. ``It's all very casual,'' said Mr. Brooker.

The structure of the airport also makes the terminal and the tarmac vulnerable, say airline sources. The 39 gates leading to the tarmac are used by passengers as well as the 30,000 people who work at Cairo Airport -- baggage handlers, porters, mechanics, and caterers.

The airport and ground services employees pass a security check before they are employed and must wear identification badges. But there are no subsequent checks. They can easily pass from one of the gates onto the tarmac and onto the planes.

``Why should we assume that only passengers should be subject to spot checks?'' asked an employee of a West European airline.

Security checks are bound to grow even more severe. Since Saturday, authorites have begun random baggage checks before passengers reach the terminal building. And all airline personnel, who had not been searched before, are being required to undergo body and hand baggage searches before being allowed on the tarmac.

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