Flights to UK from Sharm el-Sheikh cut from 29 to eight

Sharm el-Sheikh
Sharm el-Sheikh

Only eight flights will depart from Egyptian resort Sharm el-Sheikh for the UK over the course of Friday, rather than the 29 initially expected, the country's authorities have said.

Egypt's civil aviation minister said the volume of luggage being left behind by British passengers, who have been told they cannot take suitcases in the holds of planes, has disrupted operations at the airport.

Hossam Kamal's announcement is a further setback for the UK Government's hopes of clearing a backlog of holidaymakers stranded in the Red Sea resort since Wednesday by the end of the day.

In a statement, Mr Kamal said Sharm el-Sheikh airport was not able to hold more than 120 tons of luggage left behind by tourists to be flown separately to the UK by cargo plane.

"This big volume will affect the smooth operation of the rest of the domestic and international flights," said Mr Kamal.

"Egypt fully co-operates with the British side in the light of the resources of the airport and in accordance with international security regulations."

Monarch, which has five flights scheduled to depart for the UK from Sharm el-Sheikh today, said it was unaware of any changes to the schedule.

Thomson, which has nine flights scheduled, also said that, as it stands, those flights will go ahead as planned.

British Airways, which has one flight leaving for Gatwick, said it had not been informed of any changes.

EasyJet currently has two flights in the air on the way back to the UK, but has delayed its other seven UK-bound flights until tomorrow.

The UK Government suspended air links on Wednesday after an Airbus 321 operated by Russian airline Metrojet crashed last Saturday, killing all 224 people on board. Militants of the Islamic State terror group in the Sinai Peninsula have claimed that they downed the plane.

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said information obtained by UK officials indicated there was a "high probability" that the aircraft was brought down by an explosive device, though he said he was still waiting for final confirmation.

There have been reports that security agencies received intelligence based on intercepted communications between Sinai militants which pointed towards a bomb on the plane. They apparently suspect an explosive device could have been placed inside or on top of luggage by someone with access to the hold just before take-off.

Britons seeking to return home were told they would have to leave hold luggage behind, as an additional security measure.

The first flight bringing home British tourists left Sharm el-Sheikh amid confusion over whether Egyptian officials had halted the repatriation operation.

The easyJet plane took off for Gatwick as UK ambassador John Casson told holidaymakers at the airport that more would leave during the course of the day.

The departure came after the airline released a statement confirming that two flights would be leaving, but claiming the airport authorities had suspended permission for another eight.

However, other carriers suggested they were still expecting to operate flights back to Britain.

Speaking to reporters at Sharm el-Sheikh airport, Mr Casson denied that the local authorities were blocking flights.

"We have very good co-operation. The first two flights are leaving now, as I said; there will be more flights during the day, and we will continue to work until we have everybody home," he said.

"There are challenging logistical difficulties to work through. This is a busy airport, and we need to make sure people leave in a way that's safe and is in line with international aviation regulation, and that's what we're doing and we've got very good progress in our collaboration with the Egyptians."

In an apparent indication of frustration with easyJet, Downing Street said it was important for airlines to give tourists "accurate information".

"I think it is important that all the airline companies work closely with us to ensure that what they are telling customers is accurate and that they are giving them the best possible information," a Number 10 spokesman said.

One element in hold-ups at the airport is the presence of a broken-down plane.

Some aircraft have been at Sharm since being grounded on Wednesday, while others are being flown empty to the resort from the UK.

Egypt's civil aviation ministry denied that they were to blame for delays.

A spokesman told Reuters: "Flying out thousands of people on one day is incredibly hard. Everyone has to go through the procedures.

"We have not cancelled any flights but the airport cannot handle all these planes at once."

Tourists arriving at Sharm el-Sheikh airport for flights scheduled for 11am Egyptian time were met with chaotic scenes.

Would-be passengers who had checked in were left sitting in departure lounges with the planes visible on the tarmac outside. Others said they had been sent back through security and told to return to their hotels.

Mr Casson was heckled by angry holidaymakers as he walked through the airport, with one woman repeatedly demanding: "What's the problem?"

Another asked: "When are we going home?"

The ambassador insisted the "aim is to get as many people home as soon as possible".

Asked if he was satisfied with the level of security at Sharm el-Sheikh after emergency measures were put in place, Mr Casson said: "Yeah. We would not be allowing flights to go back to the UK if it weren't for the fact that we have the additional package of security measures in place to allow us to let people fly home safely."

The UK's decision to reveal its belief that terrorists may be to blame has angered both Moscow and Cairo.

President Vladimir Putin told Prime Minister David Cameron in a phone call on Thursday that all countries should wait for the completion of the Russian-Egyptian investigation before reaching conclusions on the cause of the crash. And Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry said he was "surprised" by the UK's "somewhat premature" decision to suspend flights.

The Government gave approval for flights to resume late last night after a day of intense negotiations with Egyptian leaders and the airlines, including face-to-face talks between Mr Cameron and Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who was on a pre-planned visit to Downing Street.

Mr Putin ordered a halt to all Russian flights to Egypt and told authorities to repatriate the country's nationals from Sharm el-Sheikh pending the conclusion of the air crash inquiry.

The president's announcement came after Russian intelligence chief Alexander Bortnikov said it would be "reasonable" to halt flights.