Egypt hot air balloon company used by Thomas Cook 'was involved in previous crash' 18 months ago

Pilots and operators say travel company used Egyptian agent that put profits before safety

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The Independent Online

Bitter recriminations began to surface in Egypt today following Tuesday’s hot air balloon tragedy in Luxor, as pilots and operators lashed out at Thomas Cook and accused its local agent of being complicit in the crash in which 19 tourists died.

Balloon owners operating on the banks of the Nile claimed that Bright Sky Travel, the agent contracted by Thomas Cook to provide flights over the Valley of the Kings, had a reputation for maximising its margins and starving them of cash. They claimed that as a result, safety precautions at companies like Sky Cruise – the operator whose balloon plummeted to earth – may have been compromised.

Tonight a spokesman for Thomas Cook insisted it had no control over its local agent. A statement said: “Thomas Cook has a commercial arrangement with Bright Sky Travel to arrange various excursions. However, this is only a contractual agreement to provide services; we do not have any governance over them as a separate and independent business.” The company confirmed that the fatal excursion was not part of a package holiday but was booked through Bright Sky, which in turn used Sky Cruises to fulfil its contract.

Kamal Kordy, manager of Blue Sky,  the parent company of Bright Sky Travel, denied that his company’s contracts were too tough. He said at this time of year passengers would pay around £65 to £70 for a ticket, but that he did not know exactly how much of  this fee his company passed on to the operators. “I’m so sorry about what happened,” he said. “I don’t know what else I can say in this position.”

But one balloon company owner accused Thomas Cook of “not being professional” in its dealings with Bright Sky. Ala Mahmoud, head of Magic Horizon, said that when Thomas Cook hired Bright Sky as its agent three years ago, his company had been invited to bid for a contract to provide balloon flights over Luxor. He refused after being offered the equivalent of £35 for every £70 ticket. “The problem is they are taking so much money,” he said. “It means the balloon company may not be looking for safety or quality, they are just looking for quantity.” Amr Abd el Nabi, a pilot for the balloon firm Hod Hod, agreed. “This situation makes me very angry,” he said.

Meanwhile, the manager of Sky Cruises told The Independent that Tuesday’s accident was a terrible tragedy which could have happened to any company. He denied that his organisation had ever sacrificed profit for safety. “Safety is our number one concern,” said Khalid Hatat. “If we had any idea that there was a problem with the balloon we would not have allowed it to fly.”

Today it emerged that the balloon that careered to the ground on Tuesday had been involved in a crash in 2011. The accident, which was captured on a video uploaded onto the internet, happened when the pilot steered his balloon into the river Nile and almost collided with an oncoming ferry.

Egyptian officials have now announced an investigation into the causes of Tuesday’s crash. But with all flights suspended in the meantime, some local operators engaged in back-biting yesterday, accusing each other of flouting standards. Competition for passengers in Luxor is often ferocious. Operators complained that whereas in places like Turkey or Kenya tourists often pay up to $200 (£130) per flight, in Egypt trips are much cheaper.

Overheads are substantial, with costs for new balloons reaching £15,000 and yearly insurance premiums often double that sum. This means the rock-bottom fares leave firms with less money to spend on new equipment and maintenance.