CAIRO – EgyptAir's staff scuffled with frantic passengers, food supplies were dwindling, flight information was nonexistent -- and some policemen even demanded substantial bribes before allowing foreigners to board their planes.
Cairo Airport was in complete disarray, overwhelmed with more than 18,000 passengers who flocked to the facility before 3 p.m. curfew, airport officials said Tuesday. Tourists detailed of a litany of woes, as dozens of planes arrived from all over the world to handle the surging exodus of foreigners and Egyptians amid growing anti-government protests in Cairo. As many as 3,500 travelers remained stranded at the airport Tuesday evening.
The United States ordered nonessential U.S. government personnel and their families to leave Egypt and Germany expanded its travel warning to the entire country, including the Red Sea resort towns.
Airlines from around the world arranged about 85 special flights to ferry people to their respective nations, with the largest number said to be Libyans, Kuwaitis, Saudis and other Arab nations. A smaller number were Europe-bound. In addition, at least 35 private jets and charter flights took off, with most destined for Europe.
The U.S. evacuated more than 1,200 Americans from Cairo on nine charter flights Monday and said it expected to fly out roughly 1,400 more in the coming days. Monday's flights ferried Americans to Larnaca, Cyprus; Athens, Greece; and Istanbul, while flights Tuesday expanded to include Frankfurt, Germany.
The United States was also trying to arrange evacuation flights from the Egyptian cities of Aswan and Luxor.
National carrier EgyptAir saw only about 43 of 146 scheduled international and domestic flights take off before the carrier shut down service with the onset of the curfew. The company has been canceling about 75 percent of its flights for the past couple of days because it is unable to field the necessary crew amid the 17-hour emergency curfew imposed on the Egyptian capital.
Airport officials said the family of former Tourism Minister Zohair Garanah left Cairo on a private jet bound for Greece. The departure was the latest by a member of Egypt's business, political or entertainment elite. Protesters have complained that Mubarak's regime favored the rich at their expense, and several wealthy businessmen are members of the parliament.
Even having a ticket was no guarantee that tourists could get on a flight.
Five or six EgyptAir employees scuffled with passengers who were frantically trying to get seats on the few outbound flights it had available, airport officials said. There were no reports of injuries, but the incident spotlighted how days of political uncertainty, as well as massive crowds at the airport and little guarantee of securing a flight, had worn down peoples' nerves.
"People holding tickets had difficulties getting on the plane, because the airport in Cairo is pure chaos," Canadian tourist Tristin Hutton said after his plane landed at Germany's Frankfurt airport.
"The terminals are full of panicking people. The ground staff is disappearing, and at the gate, just before entering, we all together had to collect $2,000 for a policeman at the door. ... He would not let us pass without paying," added the 44-year-old.
"We did not see the protests coming. All of us have been surprised," said Brian Johnson, the deputy head of the Canadian International School in the Cairo, who left Egypt along with 34 of his colleagues.
New York-based Pamela Huyser, who had traveled to Egypt for a conference, arrived in Larnaca late Monday unnerved by the violence she witnessed from her ninth-floor hotel balcony in Cairo.
"You cannot even believe what we saw," she said. "We saw people looting, we saw gunfire, people shooting other people. A lot of people working in our hotel, they came out with sticks and knives and bats and they protected us from getting looted."
Greek oil worker Markos Loukogiannakis, who arrived in Athens on a flight carrying 181 passengers including 65 U.S. citizens, said travelers had to negotiate 19 checkpoints Monday just to get to the Cairo airport.
Madeline Murphy Rabb, a Chicago-based curator, said that a Nile cruise for her 66th birthday was interrupted by the protests, with passengers confined to the ship at Luxor for two days.
"The manager of the tour ship restricted us from leaving the boat because he feared for our safety," Rabb said in a telephone interview from London on Tuesday.
Tens of thousands of European tourists flock to Egypt for winter holidays, and the big question tour operators and governments faced was what to do with tourists in other parts of Egypt. Tour operators say they will fly home all their customers this week when their holidays end, or on extra flights, stressing there has not been any unrest in Red Sea resort cities like Hurghada or Sharm el-Sheik.
Britain said Tuesday it was not ordering staff to leave Egypt, but confirmed most diplomats' family had left. The U.K. is advising against travel to Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor and Suez.
However, about 15,000 British tourists staying in Red Sea coastal resorts have been told they are safe to continue their vacations.
Germany said Tuesday it was expanding its travel warning to include Red Sea resorts but not ordering evacuations. Some 1.2 million Germans visit Egypt each year.
The Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported that the vast majority of Russian tourists in Egypt -- some 45,000 right now -- had no plans to interrupt their vacations. Konstantin Shvartser of the tour agency Pegas Touristik said only 18 of about 18,000 vacationers who had bought a package tour had asked to leave early.
In a twist, even Iraq decided it would evacuate its citizens, sending three planes to Egypt -- including the prime minister's plane -- to bring home for free those who wish to return. Thousands of Iraqis had once fled to Egypt to escape the violence in their own country.