MOSCOW—Breaking through thick traffic with loud sirens, over a dozen ambulances rushed towards Domodedovo airport on Friday night. Medical personal hurried to assist upset women, complaining of high blood pressure, headaches, and dizziness. These women were apparently sick over their flights to sunny Sharm El Sheikh being canceled.
The decision to stop all flights to Egypt and evacuate about 80,000 Russian citizens was made by the head of the Russian Federal Security Service. On Friday, he suggested that Russian aviation should stop flying to Egypt until authorities knew more about what caused a Metrojet plane to crash in the Sinai Peninsula, killing all 224 aboard, including 25 children.
The pile-up only worsened deplorable conditions at Domodedovo. Stuffy rooms with no air conditioning held thick crowds full of stressed, sick people with little children in tow.
“I have seen many bad airports in Russia but Domodedovo makes me feel horrified, I don’t feel safe here,” Margarita Stepanova, a mother of a 2-year-old girl told The Daily Beast on Friday. Together with other passengers who arrived from London on Friday, Stepanova had been waiting for more than an hour in line to a border control booth.
On Saturday, Russia cancelled 43 flights to Egypt.
“What a mess! My wife is going to have a heart attack tonight!” Aleksandr Serebrov, a passenger planning to fly to Hurgada, told The Daily Beast.
Egypt is the most popular destination for Russian tourists: according to Russia’s tourism agency, more than 1 million Russians had visited Sinai resorts in the first six months of this year alone. Despite that, President Vladimir Putin agreed with FSB warnings.
“Russian special services understand perfectly well the threat of terrorist groups,” Putin said, adding that all flights to Egypt were going to be suspended until the causes of the Sinai disaster were fully investigated.
Meanwhile Egypt’s authorities complained on Saturday about not being helped on war against terrorism by Western countries. Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said, "European countries did not give us the cooperation we are hoping for.” Egyptian officials were questioning Sharm el-Sheik airport staff who worked on the Metrojet flight, the Associated Press reported.
Russia, and specifically Domodedovo airport, have had a long history of terror attacks on planes and passengers that security services were not able to prevent. In 2004, 89 passengers died in bombings of two airplanes, blown up almost simultaneously, by two so-called Black Widows, jihadist suicide bombers from the Caucuses. Two female bombers boarded a Tu-134 and a Tu-154 flying from Domodedovo airport, one to Volgograd, the other one to Sochi.
Later a police captain, Mikhail Artamonov, was found responsible for failing to prevent the attacks and sentenced to seven years in jail. Artamonov had briefly detained and interrogated Satcida Dzhebirkhanova and Amata Nagayeva but let them go to board the airplanes without searching the women. Upon being released, the two women managed to purchase tickets from a speculator without showing their passports.
Six years later, in 2011 a suicide bomber killed 37 people in the arrival zone of Domodedovo airport. Just as this Friday, the airport was surrounded with ambulances and police cars on that tragic evening.
Russian authorities planned to finish the evacuation of over 80,000 Russians in two weeks. Most tourists were to travel home separately from their luggage, authorities said on Saturday, adding that their belongings would be delivered to them later by cargo planes. Furious tourists demanded compensation for their lost tickets with Nordwind company on Friday. Almost half of Russian tourist companies could face bankruptcy, experts said, as a result of first economic sanctions against Russia, the economic crises that followed them, and now the rapid evacuation and cancelled trips.
Tourist operators promised to compensate everybody, eventually, and some companies were able to offer alternative trips to Turkey or Cyprus; but passengers did not like the deal, as compared to Egypt, both alternatives sounded too cold at this time of the year.