Luxor crash prompts warning from flying club chair Phil Dunnington on failure by authorities to assess pilot skills
Egyptian hot-air balloon pilots have “very weak” training that is “inappropriate to best practice”, a British balloon expert, who advises the country’s government on safety in the sector, has warned.
The warning comes a day after 19 tourists, including three British residents, died in a balloon crash in Luxor, in one of worst balloon accidents in living memory.
Phil Dunnington, chair of the British Balloon and Airship Club, has visited Egypt eight times in the past six years to assess Egyptian balloonists at the request of the government.
He said the Egyptian authorities did not regularly assess local pilots’ skills, and that examiners were often not balloon experts.
Tourists from at least five countries were killed early on Tuesday morning as a hot-air balloon carrying them on a dawn cruise near Luxor crashed in flames onto a sugarcane field.
One of the only survivors Michael Rennie, a Briton, was discharged from hospital on Wednesday.
The dead included Joe Bampton, 40, a British antiques dealer, and his Hungarian girlfriend, Suzanna Gyetvai, 34, and Yvonne Rennie, a receptionist from Perth. Rennie’s husband, Michael, who jumped from the burning balloon as it came into land, was one of only two people, along with the pilot, Momin Mourad Ali, to escape death.
Dunnington said of ballooning tuition in Egypt: “It’s a very weak system. It’s inappropriate to best practice.” He acknowledged that there were nevertheless balloon companies in Egypt that operated to very high standards.
He added: “One of the difficulties in Egypt is that there’s no independent and objective assessment of pilot’s ongoing skills. Their pilots have to do an annual test flight but they do it with someone from their own company, with someone from the Civil Aviation Authority present who has not necessarily got any expertise in balloon-specific flying. The CAA person is not there to judge the pilot. They just register that the test flight has taken place.”
Several of the crash victims were Thomas Cook customers. The travel company was criticised for not changing balloon operators after an earlier crash involving the same operator, in 2011.
Another balloon belonging to Sky Cruises, the operator used by Thomas Cook since 2004, crashed into the Nile in October 2011. No one was killed on that occasion, but the balloon hit a boat and was left floating on the river. Passengers suffered bruising.
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.
But Thomas Cook said it was up to the Egyptian civil aviation authority to judge the suitability of balloon operators.
“We, like all other major tour operators, rely upon this endorsement by the Egyptian civil aviation authority, and it is reasonable for us to do so as we rely on their expertise,” the company said in a statement.
Thomas Cook’s local representative, Blue Sky travel agents, denied it should have switched carriers after the 2011 incident.
“We [were] worried, of course,” said Kamal el-Kordy, Blue Sky’s upper Egypt area manager. “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.”
According to paperwork seen by the Guardian the crashed balloon was authorised for use by Egypt’s civil aviation authority until October 2013.
Sky Cruises is not the only company to have been involved in crashes in recent years.
In April 2009, 16 people were hurt, including two British women, when a balloon crashed during a tour of Luxor.
The balloon was believed to have hit a mobile phone transmission tower near the banks of the Nile. After the crash, early morning hot air balloon flights over the Valley of the Kings were suspended for six months while safety measures were tightened up.
There were at least four other non-fatal crashes that year involving tourists, including three on one day, and there were also crashes in 2007 and 2008.
As state investigators ruled out foul play as a cause for this week’s tragedy, local politicians and police officers visited the crash site to lay flowers in memory of those who died.
Across town tourists who witnessed the crash were still struggling to come to terms with what had happened.
“I spent the whole day in tears yesterday,” said Tristram Mitchell, a 40-year-old tourist from Devon, who witnessed what happened from a balloon flying 100 metres from the crash, and who has decided to extend his stay in Luxor to show solidarity with his hosts. “It was horrific.”
James Massie, a 37-year-old anthropologist from Connecticut, in the US, was standing next to Mitchell as they saw the balloon catch fire. “There was initial disbelief,” he said. “The flames seemed larger than expected.”
As they saw passengers jumping from the balloon, people started to fear for their own safety. “I imagined myself in that balloon,” said Massie. “I started worrying about how we were going to get down.”
Mohamed Youssef, who was flying the balloon near the one that crashed, said: “The people in my balloon started to cry. They started to shout. I said, don’t worry, we will land soon, it will be OK. They were very worried.”
Representatives of Sky Cruises would not speculate on the causes of the crash. “The [state investigation] committee is the one that’s going to decide on what happened. They’ve taken the witness statements and they will decide. The fate is with god,” said Captain Hany Salah, Sky Cruise’s operations manager.
But the company’s general manager, Khalid Khatifah, said it was painful to watch footage of the crash obtained on Wednesday by the Guardian. “It was painful. I can’t describe my feelings. The spirit comes out of my body at this sight.”
Meanwhile, other balloon operators in Luxor were left fearing for their industry. Aviation authorities suspended all balloon activities following the crash, prompting fears that more permanent measures might follow, crippling an industry upon which, residents say, about 1,000 residents relied on for their livelihoods.
“We’re worried about our business,” said Alaa Mahmoud, sales manager for Magic Horizon, a balloon line, which once attracted the custom of 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?”
Tourism in Egypt is already floundering in the country following two years of political unrest; it has fallen 22% since 2010.
24-hour access, more original drama and a big year for pay-TV sport keep the commercial pressure on
This week MediaGuardian 25, our survey of Britain’s most important media companies, covering TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, music and digital, looks at BSkyB.
Investors used to BSkyB’s ability to deliver profits whatever the economic context – the company is on track to notch up profits of well over £1bn for the second year running – may have been given pause for thought over the weekend about its dominance of the future of TV.
On Friday, video on demand giant Netflix challenged the TV heavyweights by launching House of Cards, a $100m star-studded remake of the BBC drama that lured Kevin Spacey to his first lead TV role, making all 13 episodes of the first season available in one shot to 30 million subscribers in 40 countries.
Ever since it audaciously snatched the rights for Premier League matches in 1992, BSkyB has relied on traditional pay-TV as the cornerstone of its business model. Yet last Thursday chief executive Jeremy Darrochtore up the rule book, announcing that come spring fans will be able to watch its six sports and news channels on mobile devices for £9.99 for 24 hours’ access – the first time it has allowed access to its crown jewel content without a TV subscription.
The Twittersphere thought the “day pass” was too pricey. Darroch, aware that offering access too cheaply could undermine its revenue from monthly Sky Sports subscriptions priced at a minimum of £42.50, insisted it was “great value”.
“2012 was a big year for free-to-air TV with the Olympics and Paralympics, but 2013 is a big year for sport on pay-TV,” he said, pointing to the Lions rugby tour of Australia, two Ashes cricket series and exclusive Formula One races such as the Monaco grand prix. “We have some great days of sport when people could catch a couple of top Premiership games, rugby, certainly some cricket and maybe a Formula 1 race”. However, he admits that the price could change once the Now TV day pass offer’s popularity can be gauged after launch.
With Sky’s traditional TV subscriber growth now at anaemic levels, up just 25,000 in the last quarter, the mobile initiative marks a shift from a previous strategy limited to trying to bludgeon the 13m UK households who don’t have a TV subscription package. Now Sky aims to tempt those consumers to “dip in and dip out” of some of its programming online.
The day pass is the latest addition to Now TV, the internet TV service that launched with Sky Movies films last summer in response to the arrival in the UK of Netflix, and attracted 25,000 subscribers in the last three months of 2012. Darroch is happy with uptake, claiming Now TV is succeeding in attracting groups who are traditionally non-Sky users. “Users are slightly younger, skewed to urban areas, people in flats, students, those lower on the socio-economic scale,” he said. “All of which we anticipated at the outset.”
He isn’t concerned about cannibalising the TV subscriber base and neither, it seems, are investors. BSkyB’s shares hit an 18-month high of 832p after it reported results for the six months to 31 December on Thursday. A price not seen since Rupert Murdoch’s shareholder-salivating £8bn bid to take full control of BSkyB was still alive in June 2011.
BSkyB is firmly focused on closing the door on Netflix, and other internet rivals such as Amazon’s LoveFilm, last week showing its determination to keep delivering the best movies online by renewing its exclusive rights deal with another big Hollywood studio. Three of the “big six” studios have now agreed renewals, and Sky has ongoing deals with the rest.
Back in 2005, the company seized an opportunity to break into the broadband market when it acquired Easynet. It proved a shrewd move, diversifying revenue and making Sky’s package of services more popular. With 4.2 million customers, it is the UK’s third biggest provider – just behind Virgin Media and seriously impacting on market-leader BT’s dominance of the market.
With one eye on Netflix’s House of Cards move, the first of five original productions it plans to offer this year, Darroch says that, with sport and films sorted, this year’s big push will be in TV entertainment. BSkyB intends to bulk up Now TV by adding its entertainment channels, which should bring in shows such as Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Stella and Strike Back, and is in the process of increasing its spend on original UK programming to £600m a year. Netflix has reportedly got a fraction of that, $300m (£189m), to spend over the next three years.
The company is also making solid progress in making sure existing customers can go beyond the TV screen, with Sky Go, offering programming on mobile devices, rocketing in popularity. Unsurprisingly, its biggest success is football, with last week’s Liverpool v Arsenal match hitting 264,000 streams. This is potentially valuable traffic that could be monetised, and advertising is set to be introduced, a significant opportunity given the linear broadcast of an international hit such as Mad Men attracts well under 100,000 viewers.
BSkyB makes about £440m a year from TV advertising, which for a pay-TV business is in effect all profit, and it is keen to eat into the £3.5bn market dominated by ITV and Channel 4. This summer it will launch AdSmart, which will allow it to target “hyperlocal” TV ads potentially down to the level of individual postcodes.
This service could open up a whole new market of local advertisers, from florists to car sales, and is also likely to compete with the main revenue stream that the government’s proposed 19 local TV channels are meant to tap.On Thursday it will be back to a more traditional battleground, when BT has a hearing with competition regulators in its long-running battle to force Sky to offer its sports channels to rivals at a cheaper rate, so they can make more profit from their own TV subscribers.
From August, Sky will have to share live Premier League football rights with BT – arguably its strongest challenger yet, with deep pockets and having snatched 38 prime games a season. BT’s dramatic entry into the TV sports rights market forced BSkyB to up its Premier League bid by 40%, an extra £500m compared to the last deal.
“I’m not worried about BT,” Darroch said. “I’m focused on Sky Sports, it has the best content we have ever had. I don’t think it is fundamentally different [with BT], sports has always been well competed, we have seen ESPN and before that Setanta. The cost of Sky a month is the same as a family night out at the movies, or a restaurant. And we are increasingly offering better value for our service.”
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BT’s swoop on the rights to 38 Premier League games pushes its chief into the media big league – but will its channel succeed?
Job: chief executive, BT
Industry: telecoms, broadcasting
BT’s bold raid on the pay-TV market propels this modest Scot (and Celtic fan) into the Media Guardian 100.
BT followed up its £738m purchase of the rights to 38 live Premier League football games with a £152m deal for Premiership rugby union currently broadcast by BSkyB and ESPN.
BT, which owns the BT Vision broadband subscription service, is not Sky’s first sporting rival on the small screen, but it has much deeper pockets than the likes of Setanta or ITV Digital.
Having forked out for the rights, the question now is what BT will do with them – and how many people will pay to watch it.
Livingston is credited with turning around BT and has been well remunerated for his efforts – he earned £7.7m last year.
A former accountant at Arthur Andersen, he was finance director at Dixons (the youngest in the FTSE 100) and was appointed chief executive of BT in 2008.
As a serious irritation to BSkyB – which has built its business over 20 years on the back of live top-flight football – BT has to be doing something right. But only a fool would discount Sky, which still put up £2.3bn for 116 matches a season for three years. Furthermore, BT still has to launch and make a success of its expected new sports channel.