Will the public be concerned or amused and relieved after bizarre EgyptAir hijacking?

PR professionals are divided over the extent to which yesterday's unusual hijacking of an EgyptAir plane by an apparently unarmed spurned husband - who was declared "an idiot" rather than a terrorist by Egyptian authorities - will spook would-be travellers and prompt further debate over airline security.

An Egyptair plane above France in 2014 (Credit: ERIC SALARD via Flickr)
An Egyptair plane above France in 2014 (Credit: ERIC SALARD via Flickr)

Cypriot officials have said the Egyptian hijacker, who reportedly wore a fake bomb belt to cause an internal flight to be diverted to Cyprus' Larnaca airport yesterday morning, was "psychologically unstable". It has been widely reported he undertook the hijacking to get attention from his estranged wife.

While the incident was covered in breaking news by UK broadcast media through the day, today's papers focus less on the security issues raised by the incident, and more on the unusual aspects of the case, including the British man who got a picture with the hijacker.

Cass Helstrip, MD of travel PR firm White Tiger PR, said that humour rather than panic characterised the story now these details have come out.

She said: "The circumstances of this incident are exceptional, more lovelorn than alarming, and the Egyptian foreign minister's comment went viral yesterday when he said: 'He's not a terrorist, he's an idiot.' Social media saw editors hail this as 'quote of the week' - so instead of a sense of panic, one of humour prevailed once it became apparent that, thankfully, no-one had been hurt. The front pages today are littered with hijacker selfie shots rather than extreme security messages."

Helstrip said that the story would be seen by travellers and would-be travellers as a one-off case of "ludicrous behaviour" - drawing a comparison between it and the way the UK press reported on a British woman who spent three hours trying to swim to her cruise liner with her handbag as she thought her husband had left without her after a row. "I doubt this story will negatively impact on sentiment overall," she said.

However Maria Darby-Walker – who recently joined Citigate Dewe Rogerson as a senior director following an in-house career that took in Rolls-Royce among other firms – disagreed, saying: "The incident definitely puts airline security and security in general back on the public’s agenda; we’ve already seen shifts in attitude towards where people are booking holidays. Portugal and Spain for example are seeing big increases in bookings on last year as people search for safe places to visit; so this will only fuel concerns."

Darby-Walker also questioned the wisdom of the Egyptian minister's 'idiot not a terrorist' comment, saying: "This response may be an attempt to downplay the seriousness of the situation, but it shouldn’t detract from the reality that the security officials did not spot anything suspicious about what he was carrying or about his behaviour. In terms of reassuring the public I’m not sure that response was the most appropriate."

She also criticised the British man who posed with the hijacker, saying: "Drawing attention to yourself during what can only be an incredibly volatile situation is pretty irresponsible."

Alison Clarke, the former Grayling UK CEO who now freelances as Alison Clarke Communications, also said the event raised security concerns: "It matters little that the suicide belt was fake or that the hijacker has been described as 'psychologically unstable'. At a time when public safety and security is top of the news agenda, it is worrying that this person managed to get through several security checks."

However, she said the ball was now in the court of the PR teams at EgyptAir and departure airport Borg El Arab in Alexandria, saying: "Both the airline and the airport need to put real proof points behind their claim that they have invested heavily in upgraded security measures. This incident doesn't support that claim."

Much of the airline's comms so far have come through Twitter - with many messages in Arabic but automatically translated by Twitter, including this image of the plane returning home with its crew.

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