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Travelers struggle to exit Egypt; State Department updates advice

January 30, 2011|By Jane Engle | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • Crowd swarms Cairo International Airport in an attempt to flee Egypt's chaos.
Crowd swarms Cairo International Airport in an attempt to flee Egypt's… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

As the U.S. government updated its Egypt travel warning Sunday and announced plans for charter flights to evacuate Americans from the troubled Mideast country, private security consultants stepped up efforts to get students, business people and other U.S. travelers safely home.

Here was the situation for travelers Sunday night, as described by the U.S. State Department and a security expert:

New travel warning: In an update issued Sunday, the State Department recommended that U.S. citizens avoid travel to Egypt “due to ongoing political and social unrest” and noted that it had authorized the voluntary departure of dependents and non-emergency employees.

It added: "U.S. citizens currently in Egypt should consider leaving as soon as they can safely do so."

The department also posted FAQs on the situation on its website for travelers.

Recorded info:  On its phone line for overseas citizens services ([888] 407-4747 toll-free in the U.S. and Canada; or, for callers outside the U.S. and Canada, on a regular toll line at [202] 501-4444), the State Department provided an option (No. 7) on the recorded menu for updates on the Egyptian situation. From there, callers could choose to get general information or to make inquiries about specific U.S. citizens.

Charter flights: Citizens needing charter flights out of Egypt were advised that these would take them to "safe havens" in  Europe. They were being asked to contact the State Department by e-mail at and give their name, age, place of birth, U.S. passport number and other data; and to monitor radio broadcasts in Egypt and the department's travel website for updates.

Live phone help was available, but the recorded message advised that “wait times may be long due to the high volume of calls.”

Chaos on the ground: “We’ve got at least 100 people who have contacted us for help in getting out of Egypt, and the number is growing rapidly,” said David Weir, senior vice president of client solutions in charge of global response for iJET Intelligent Risk Systems, a travel security company based in Annapolis Md.  

“A number of university students have called us,” Weir said Sunday. “Their parents are frantic about getting them out.”

His company provides travel security help for a wide range of businesses and universities, including the University of California, Weir said. Many U.S. students in Egypt had just started new semester activities when the current round of violent political protests broke out.

The challenges for travelers are formidable.

“The issue they face is it is not safe to venture out alone in the city,” Weir said. “People aren’t adhering to curfews. There is a lot of violence going on. We’re being told that there are checkpoints about every 300 to 400 yards manned by police, army or local people in the neighborhood armed with baseball bats, machetes and whatever else they can get.”

Although the Cairo airport was open, the civil unrest was disrupting delivery of food, fuel and staff needed to operate commercial flights, causing backups and “delays anywhere from 12 hours to who knows when,” Weir said.

He added that iJET was working to provide secure transport to the airport for its clients and arranging for charter flights to pick them up.

“We’re telling people to stay put,” Weir said. “If you’re in a safe place with food and water, don’t venture out there.”

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