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What’s it like to depart from the same airport as a plane attacked by terrorists just weeks before? TPG Contributor J. Keith van Straaten passed through SSH to find out. All photos are by the author unless otherwise noted.
On October 31, 2015, 224 people were killed when an explosion disintegrated a charter flight from Sharm El-Sheikh International Airport (SSH) to St. Petersburg, Russia. ISIS claimed responsibility as a terrorist attack. Since then, reports emerged about the lax security at SSH, prompting Russia and the UK to suspend all direct flights to the resort community on the Red Sea and KLM to forbid passengers from checking luggage on a flight from Cairo. The US State Department forbid its employees from traveling anywhere on the Sinai Peninsula and some airlines even avoided overflying the Sinai Peninsula.
Several friends thought I was kidding when I told them that my November/December trip to Africa included a stop in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. I went anyway, and if it isn’t obvious already, I returned safe and sound. Here are the questions I’ve been getting since I’ve been home.
1. Why Did You Go?
I wanted to Scuba dive. I heard Sharm had some of the best diving in the world and I was going to be in Cairo, a short flight away. I considered the risks, but figured the odds of an attack at the same airport exploiting the same security vulnerabilities was low, especially considering I’d be taking a domestic flight, departing from and returning to Cairo. (And with demand low, I was able to book a 5-star Hilton resort for only 5,000 HHonors points.)
2. Were You Scared?
Only a little. But once I saw that SSH is a modern airport (nicer than many in the US) and that staff seemed to be taking security seriously, I felt fine.
3. Were There Signs There had Been an Attack?
Yes. Literally. Across the street from the arrivals hall, a big sign welcomes you to Sharm El-Sheikh, “A City of Peace.” More signs were posted throughout the region.
4. Was There Security in the Parking Lot?
Yes, but that’s not where it started. About 150 meters from the terminal, my taxi pulled into the security checkpoint. The driver had to stop and get out as an armed guard inspected the trunk. How serious of an inspection is hard to say, as we were on our way within a minute.
5. Did You Need to Get There Extra Early?
Probably not, but I did anyway. In fact, I may have been too early, as the guards inside would not let me pass through the next security checkpoint until 7pm for my 9:45pm flight – and my extra caution seemed to make me seem even more suspicious! I did need some extra time, though, as the guards would not let me in without a printout of my boarding pass (my phone version was insufficient) and I needed to go to the EgyptAir ticket office to get one.
6. How Has Security Changed There?
It was difficult to find out. The EgyptAir employee in the ticket office was cagey when I asked:
Me: Has security changed here since the attack?
Him: Yes, don’t worry.
Me: How is it different now?
Him: You’ll see.
7. How Was the Screening Different Than in the US?
As with most of the airports I went to in Africa, I had to go through luggage screening and metal detectors twice – once to get to the ticket counters and once to get to the gate area. Unlike others, the screening areas are very close – the second one about 20 meters from the first. The metal detector at the first screening was sensitive enough to beep at my alloy belt buckle that doesn’t set off most US detectors.
8. Were the Passengers Acting Any Different?
Uninformed travelers are a worldwide phenomenon. The passenger in front of me was unaware he had to push his bag onto the belt, take off his watch, etc. He set off the detector five times before clearing. Another family knew enough to remove their bottles of water from their bags, only to put them on the belt for screening. Still, I’ve seen worse at JFK.
9. Did You Get a Hard Time for Taking These Photos?
Not for a while. I took all the shots you see without a hassle – except for one. While in line for the second screening, I was confronted after I snapped a photo of a sign in Arabic about traveling with liquids (I presume). A man came over and said in broken English, “Policeman say camera photo no.” I pointed to the sign I was photographing and he motioned to the x-ray belts and repeated, “No.” I tried to assure him that I wasn’t taking pictures of that and he seemed to believe me. Before he left, he seemed resigned to add, “Since accident, no.”
10. How Was the Second Screening Different?
Shoes were required to be removed and my bag was flagged for hand inspection after the X-ray. The culprit? The two pieces of pottery bowls that looked suspicious to the screeners (or maybe I looked more suspicious after being caught in the act of photography). Nothing was confiscated and I was on my way within a few minutes.
11. What Was the Airport like After the Security Screening?
Boring. There were no lounges in the terminal and there was only one small counter selling drinks and snacks. Also of note, there were very few power outlets. And in an apparent effort to drive me insane, there was no Wi-Fi available, despite a network visible called Airport Wi-Fi.
12. Was Your Experience Typical?
I honestly don’t know. Many of the complaints about the security at SSH before the attack refer to selective screening of passengers. It’s obvious from my appearance that I am probably not an Egyptian or Muslim. Is this why I received a patdown even after a metal detector did not beep?
13. So, is it Safe?
I can’t say yes or no. But I couldn’t say so about any airport. My experience didn’t leave me any reason for concern, but that’s no guarantee that another attack couldn’t happen by the time I finish typing this sentence.
Honestly, I’m left with questions of my own. How much of what you see as airport security is even effective? Was having guards carrying assault rifles doing anything to prevent or deter an attack? Did flying on a regular scheduled flight make me less vulnerable than if I’d taken a charter flight, like the victims in October? Who knows where and when the next attack will happen? These don’t have easy answers.
What I do know is that traveling is a big part of who I am and staying home and living in fear is not. I am not reckless, but I am willing to take certain risks to live my life. If I had been killed on this trip, it would have been doing something that I love: seeing and being in the world. I’m glad I went and glad I made it back.
And the diving was fantastic.
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