Flights in and out of Egypt's main international airport were severely disrupted Thursday because of a work slowdown by Cairo air traffic controllers to protest the revocation of a promised bonus, airport officials said.
More than 200 flights have been delayed, some for more than 15 hours, since the slowdown began Wednesday night. It reduced flight traffic to and from the airport by 80 percent.
The airport was chaotic, with many travelers sitting on the floor as they waited long hours for flights and some arguing with officials who gave out little information. There was a backlog of luggage on the conveyer belts and long lines of vehicles dropping off passengers at terminals.
There has been a wave of labor unrest across around the country since the Jan. 25 uprising which brought down President Hosni Mubarak. Striking workers and professionals have demanded better pay or the replacement of company or union heads, mostly those who received their posts in the Mubarak era.
The continuing strikes, coupled with mounting political uncertainty and street protests, are creating major economic hurdles for the transitional leadership that has run the country since Mubarak stepped down in February.
The Central Bank of Egypt said on its website that the country's net international reserves fell from $25 billion in August to $24 billion in September, continuing a downward slide dating back to the wake of the uprising. Foreign reserves are now 33 percent lower than they were at the end of December.
The controller strike has forced the national carrier Egypt Air alone to cancel or delay some 80 of its domestic and international flights, an official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. He said the slowdown is also having an impact on cargo traffic and is "disastrous" to tourism.
Some flights were transferred to other airports in Egypt, including Sharm el-Sheik and Alexandria.
The official said scores of passengers stormed out of the halls onto the tarmac, sitting on the ground to demand their flight to Saudi Arabia, delayed for 15 hours, take off. They later moved to the transit hall.
One air traffic controller said negotiations were under way but the partial strike won't end until the bonus is restored. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. He said authorities revoked the bonus after other employees in the airport demanded similar benefits.
Some travelers in the airport were in a panic, shoving and pushing to get their luggage through, and screaming at airport officials who had few words to calm the stressed out crowd. Vehicles dropping off passengers were backed up all the way to the entrance of the parking lot, and travelers sat on the floor waiting for delayed planes, staring at the flight information boards that were not updating.
The flight to Italy of a potential Egyptian presidential candidate, Hamdeen Sabahy, was delayed. So he took advantage of the opportunity to campaign among the travelers, who congregated around him.
"It was a mob scene," said Meg Conner, a Canadian teacher living in Egypt whose flight to Greece was more than three hours late. "People were pushing and yelling. Airport workers climbed on the conveyer belts and started screaming," she added. "It was the worst I have seen in my life."
Conner said airport officials were nowhere in sight, but one who did show up told travelers it was chaotic but officials will not provide more information because they feared that would add to the chaos.
"I understand the workers on strike because they are abused, overworked and underpaid," she said. But mainly she said she was "upset" at the lack of information or accessibility by the airport officials.