Hajj operation is the airlift of pilgrims to Mecca and Medina for the annual pilgrimage exercise. Pilgrims are usually airlifted from Nigeria to Prince Muhammad bn Abdul-Aziz International Airport, Jeddah, depending on the arrangement with the airline.
What is peculiar about airlifting pilgrims to the Holy Land is that most of the passengers before the trip may not be familiar with air transport procedures; many of them may not be educated to take instructions in the official language, so efforts are made to communicate to them in the languages they will understand.
Another peculiarity is that within a short space of time about 80,000 people are airlifted to one destination, Saudi Arabia and that puts a strain on airport facilities and even the airlines that airlift them also operate under so much logistics pressure because of the nature of the operations.
Few years ago, there were hiccups in Hajj operation in Nigeria. Then pilgrims were airlifted to the Holy Land but the airlines that fly them to their destination usually abandon them or delay in bringing them back. Then there was half-hearted commitment to Hajj operation; that after every pilgrimage to the Holy Land there used to be lamentation of families of those abandoned and others missing because the airlines were unable to bring all the passengers they airlifted back to their home destinations.
It was the former Director General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Dr. Harold Demuren that drastically reduced such incidents by ensuring that the airlines that would airlift the pilgrims met stringent safety measures; that they had the capacity to carry out the operations and that they would be able to go back after the Hajj to bring the pilgrims back.
During that time, the NCAA critically audited the airlines and shortlisted those that could effectively do the airlift. That eventually brought to an end the abandonment of Nigerians in the Holy Land.
THISDAY learnt on Tuesday that the trend laid by NCAA has continued but this time, the regulatory authority no more select the airlines that do the airlift; the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) does and “they use the criteria they like to do that but we still regulate them and make sure that the airlines meet given regulatory conditions.”
The NCAA source that spoke to THISDAY said that part of the regulatory challenges is that airports which are not regularly used for international operations are used for airlift of pilgrims, so NCAA must ensure that the airports are safe for the operation, adding that the plan for the Hajj operations start about six months before; whereby NAHCON works with NCAA, the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) and the Nigeria Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) to ensure that there is hitch –free operation.
“The preparation takes a lot of meetings between NAHCON and the aviation agencies and it is during this time that the airlines are selected. So before the short period for the airlift itself a lot of things happen and since Demuren left NCAA all the things we were doing then we have continued to do to ensure hitch-free operation, but now we do not select the airlines; NAHCON does that. In the past NCAA was seriously involved in selecting the airlines,” the NCAA official said.
About three years ago, Saudi Arabia airlines had joined in airlifting Nigerian pilgrims to the Holy Land, but while it may not be due to low capacity of Nigerian airlines, the Managing Director of Medview Airline, which is playing major role in the airlift of Nigerian pilgrims, Alhaji Muneer Bankole said the domestic carriers have the capacity to airlift all the Nigerian pilgrims, which at its peak is about 95, 000 but noted that the market is open for others.
“It is not correct that Nigerian airlines do not have the capacity. Today we have a strong partner. Max Air has about three airplanes which carry almost 500 passengers each. Med- View has three which carries about 1000 per day. If you put all these together and multiply by the number of days we have, the pilgrims are less than what Nigerian carriers can airlift. I repeat it; it is less for us to carry. But we are always open to competition which makes us to believe in our partner, our friend from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Bankole said.
Bankole dismissed the fears about whether all the pilgrims would return and whether there would be hiccups in the return trip and explained that their return flights had already been programmed, noting that since Medview started airlifting pilgrims such incidents had never occurred in its operations.
On the possibility of some pilgrims missing while in Holy Land, the Medview Boss remarked that such incidents have drastically reduced and observed that the need for the pilgrims to be in uniform was important because it helps to identify them and to foreclose the chance of such disappearance the pilgrims should be made to always travel in groups.