It was just past 12:30 on a cool Cairo night. Sleepy passengers filed quietly on board EgyptAir's nonstop Flight 759 bound directly for Nairobi, Kenya. Or so they thought. Some 7 hours later, the Boeing 767 bore down on a tiny airstrip in a remote stretch of tawny African landscape. To the shock of many waking passengers, Flight 759 was about to land, not in Nairobi, but in a small town in Zambia.
The surprise destination was the result of a highly unusual decision by EgyptAir to make an unannounced stop to pick up the Egyptian national soccer team.
Travel delays and diversions are not unusual in Africa. But this instance, which occured May 4, seemed extraordinary by any standards.
Although EygptAir had planned to make this surprising stop in Ndola, Zambia at least two days beforehand, (one passenger had received a telex dated May 1 from his British travel agent informing him that the May 4 flight would be making an unscheduled stop somewhere in Africa), the airline made no announcement to the passengers who boarded in Cairo until after takeoff.
The plane was delayed for what turned out to be several hours.
While airport officials conferred on the ground with the flight's captain, the plane was watched from the small control tower by a man with binoculars.
After an hour or so, the Egyptian soccer team, which had been playing in Zambia, was allowed to board. Local officals then announced the flight would not be allowed to leave until a ``departure tax'' had been paid - even though the EgyptAir crew said all fees had already been taken care of through their Cairo office.
Zambian officals insisted that the $1,000 departure fee be paid in cash - refusing to accept an EgyptAir check, a demand that seemed a clear indication of bribery.
The Egyptian football team eventually paid the $1,000 - despite the pilot's warning that he could not guarantee reimbursement from EgyptAir. As the plane taxied into position for takeoff, the runway was blocked by a fire engine and an ambulance. The plane was forced back to the control tower, where local authorities said that exhaust from the jet engine had damaged three cars near the airstrip.
This time there were no civilians on the ground near the plane. Instead, an armed soldier stood guard at the bottom of the stairs that had been pushed alongside the aircraft. The pilot was taken away for questioning.
Some three hours later, with no explanation offered to passengers, Flight 759 was suddenly given clearance for takeoff.
Crew members soon confided that officials in Cairo had retaliated by holding a Zambia Airways jet and its passengers hostage on the ground until the EgyptAir plane was released.
Flight 759 finally landed in Nairobi, 10 hours behind schedule.
There are no regulations that require airlines to compensate passengers for delays, and airlines ``do not guarantee schedules,'' according to a spokesman at International Air Transport Association, a trade association of airlines worldwide.
The passengers, however, should have been advised before departure that the flight had been rescheduled, the spokesman said.
According to a spokesman at the International Civil Aviation Organization, which seeks to develop and promote standards in international air navigation, a ``departure fee,'' such as the one demanded by the Zambians, is standard practice. However, it should be paid only by the airline.
The spokesman said the passengers could lodge a claim against EgyptAir for ``just'' compensation for the delays, if they were not notified of the change in flight plans before takeoff.
EgyptAir officials, questioned at length in Nairobi by this reporter, and in New York by the travel agent who booked the flight, would take no responsibility for the incident.