Patrick Kingsley and Haroon Siddique, The Guardian, February 27, 2013
The hot air balloon crash that killed 19 tourists, including two Britons and a UK resident in Luxor, Egypt, was the second crash involving the company Sky Cruises in the space of 18 months.
Another balloon belonging to Sky Cruises – which has been the preferred carrier for the travel agent Thomas Cook for several years – crashed into the Nile in October 2011 (video). No one was killed, but the balloon hit a boat and was left floating on the river with passengers reporting bruising.
It is understood that while the pilot involved in the 2011 crash no longer works for Sky Cruises, the company remained the preferred carrier for Blue Sky travel agents, and by extension Thomas Cook, whom they represent in Egypt.
Representatives of Thomas Cook in Egypt referred press inquiries to the head office in London. But the Luxor manager of Blue Sky denied it should have changed carriers after the 2011 incident.
"Sky Cruises are the highest one on the market," insisted Kamal el-Kordy, Blue Sky's Upper Egypt area manager.
"We [were] worried, of course. But we have to follow the rules. They [Sky Cruises] have all the documents from all the civil aviation control. What can we do? We are not engineers and they have all the paperwork according to the law."
He added: "All of the excursion companies we use satisfy the health and safety demands of all the major British travel companies. We work according to the laws in their countries."
Tuesday's crash in Luxor (video) raised questions about safety standards, and all flights have been suspended pending an investigation. There are fears for the future of Egypt's ballooning industry, despite its popularity with tourists.
The Britons Yvonne Rennie, 48, Joe Bampton, 40, and Bampton's Hungarian-born partner, Suzanna Gyetvai, 34, died in the tragedy. It appears to have been the worst accident of its kind in history.
Rennie's husband, Michael, 49, was being treated on Tuesday night at Luxor international hospital, where a spokeswoman said he was in a stable condition. He and the pilot, named locally as Momin Mourad Ali, were the only survivors. They, along with seven other passengers, including the other three British-based tourists, are believed to have jumped out of the balloon to escape the flames. Ali suffered 70% burns and was also being treated in hospital in Luxor.
The other tourists – nine from Hong Kong, four Japanese, two French and a Belgian – all died in the explosion.
Bampton and Gyetvai were from Clapham, south London, and both worked for Lots Road Auctions in Chelsea, west London. Bampton was an expert valuer in rugs, carpets and antiques, and Gyetvai was a general valuer. Both were also artists, Gyetvai creating works in a variety of media under her professional name, Zsi Chimera.
The Rennies, from Perth, Scotland, were described as "very nice people" who only spent the weekends together owing to work commitments and so were looking forward to going on holiday together. Yvonne Rennie was a medical receptionist, and her husband works in the construction industry.
Representatives of Sky Cruises declined to speculate on the causes for the crash. "The [investigation] committee is the one that's going to decide on what happened. They have taken the witness statements, and they will decide. The fate is with God," said Captain Hany Salah, Sky Cruises' operations manager.
But the company's general manager said it was painful to watch footage of the crash obtained yesterday by the Guardian.
Khalid Khatifah said: "It was painful. I can't describe my feelings. The spirit comes out of my body at this sight."
According to an investigator with the state prosecutor's office, initial indications are that the balloon was in the process of landing, after 7am, when a cable got caught around a helium tube and a fire broke out.
The balloon then ascended rapidly, the fire detonated a gas canister and the balloon plunged about 300 metres (1,000ft) to the ground, crashing in a sugar cane field outside al-Dhabaa village, west of Luxor.
Local balloon operators fear the suspension of flights may lead to more permanent measures, crippling an industry on which locals say around 1,000 residents depend for their livelihoods. "We're worried about our business," said Alaa Mahmoud, sales manager for Magic Horizon, a balloon line once used by Melvyn Bragg, whose photograph is framed in Mahmoud's office. "We follow the rules and regulations, but over 1,000 people will starve if the balloon business in Egypt is stopped. If they stop the balloons, what are they going to do?"
After two years of political unrest, tourism in Egypt is already floundering, down 22% since 2010, with revenue down by a quarter.
According to documentation seen by the Guardian, the balloon concerned was first licensed in 2008. It was last safety-checked by the civil aviation administration last October, and was not due for further checks until October 2013.
Sky Cruises said the balloon was one of four in its fleet. The balloon would have made 12-15 flights a month, each lasting around 35-45 minutes. If true, this means the balloon would have been airborne for between 420-675 hours in its lifetime. Khatifah said balloons had a useful life of 1,500 hours.
The head of the civil aviation administration, Mohammed Sherif, said at the scene of the crash that the pilot had renewed his licence in January, which meant he would have been tested and the balloon checked.
But an aviation official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said initial results of the investigation showed the pilot jumped out when the fire began, instead of shutting off valves that would have prevented the gas canister from exploding.
Mohammed Osman, head of the Luxor chamber of tourism, blamed civil aviation authorities, who are in charge of licensing and inspecting balloons, and whom he accused of negligence.
"I don't want to blame the revolution for everything, but the laxness started with the revolution," he said. "These people are not doing their job. They are not checking the balloons and they just issue the licences without inspection." Balloon trips in Luxor over the Valley of the Kings are popular with visitors but concerns have been raised about their safety after recent crashes.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk