This is not a city where safety and foresight rule. Buildings collapse with regularity. Drivers jockey recklessly through the streets. Piles of trash and heavy debris mount on vacant lots.
But if parts of the country seem perilously constructed, EgyptAir has been a presence as sturdily dependable in its way as the Nile floods that built Egyptian civilization.
It isn't a flashy airline: Complaints about service are common, and it is frequently the object of jokes for mishaps such as a recent spate of incidents in which passengers dozed through stops and wound up in the wrong country. But, like the national carriers that operate even in economically marginal countries such as Yemen, or small ones such as Qatar, its planes arrive where they are scheduled.
Yet if the loss of Flight 990--which crashed early Sunday off the New England coast--turns out to be an accident, questions will undoubtedly be raised about EgyptAir. The airline has a spotty safety record, especially in the 1970s, though it has improved since the airline stopped flying Russian-made jets acquired when Egypt had a strong relationship with the former Soviet Union. It now has a fleet of nearly 40 Boeing and Airbus jets, most of them built in the early 1990s, according to Airclaims Ltd., a London firm.
EgyptAir has often been the target of hijackers. In 1985, 60 passengers and two crew members were killed in a botched attempt by Egyptian commandos to end a hijacking of a Boeing 737 jet. Just two weeks ago, on Oct. 19, an Egyptian commandeered an EgyptAir flight between Istanbul and Cairo. He apparently poked a pen into the neck of a crew member and forced the plane to fly to Germany, where he was overpowered and detained. None of the 46 passengers on board was harmed, but the airline was criticized for sloppy security.
Sunday's crash was the first fatal accident for the airline since a Fokker F27 propeller plane of its Air Sinai subsidiary crashed at Cairo International Airport in 1986, killing 23 people. But EgyptAir has experienced a series of nonfatal accidents in recent years. In March, for instance, an Airbus 321 jet overshot a landing and came to rest beyond the end of a runway; last year, another Airbus jet was substantially damaged when it collided with an Ethiopian jet while taxiing in Cairo.
EgyptAir Chairman Mohammed Fahim Rayan has acknowledged mistakes in the way the 67-year-old airline is run and has promised better service.
Egyptian aviation regulators say they keep a close watch on EgyptAir and other airlines and strive to adhere to world standards for maintenance and safety.
"We are in very good shape with oversight and we do it with [international] regulations, and modernized it with FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] assistance," said Capt. Cato Fatah, chairman of the Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority. "We have been flying to the United States for 15 years with no problem."
He said maintenance personnel for the airline's Boeing fleet start their training at company facilities in the United States, and Boeing representatives work full time with EgyptAir to help ensure the planes are properly maintained.
In 1996, shortly before the FAA was to evaluate Egyptian aviation oversight as part of an international assessment program, the Egyptians hired a unit of Mitre Corp. of McLean for help in modernizing its air traffic system and aviation safety inspections, according to Amr ElSawy, senior vice president at Mitre. ElSawy said the Center for Advanced Aviation System Development helped the Egyptians ensure that the procedures were in place to pass the FAA inspection and another by the International Civil Aviation Organization, an arm of the United Nations.
"A lot of nations had to go through a strict process of dotting i's and crossing t's," ElSawy said. "My guess is not everything was in place at the time."
The FAA rated Egypt as a category 1 country, meaning its oversight met international standards and Egyptian carriers could continue to fly to the United States.
A team of three Egyptian aviation authority investigators will join the U.S. probe, Fatah said. Company officials are also due to arrive in the United States, along with family members of passengers who were on board the Cairo-bound airliner, which crashed in the Atlantic early Sunday morning shortly after leaving New York.
As the search continued for bodies, wreckage and an explanation for what happened to the flight, Egypt continued grieving over the tragedy.
Religious authorities at Al Azhar University said they were encouraging all mosques in the country to add an extra prayer at Friday services, in honor of those lost in the crash. Sixty-two Egyptian passengers and crew were among those lost.
Staff writer Glenn Kessler contributed to this report from Washington.