14 July 2017

Nigeria: 2017 Hajj - How Prepared Are Air Carriers?

Withthe signing of agreements with the four air carriers approved by the Federal Government for the airlift of Nigerian pilgrims to 2017 Hajj, the coast is clear and the intending pilgrims are assured of security of their means of transportation to and from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

It is imperative to re-echo the fact that the airlift of pilgrims and their belongings which constitute about 70 percent of the entire Hajj operations are the most difficult. This component of the operations used to witness great challenges in the past to the extent that pilgrims would not be sure of the journey until they found themselves in Saudi Arabia. Even when they found themselves, sometimes miraculously in Saudi Arabia, there would be no assurance of returning back home on schedule and with their luggage and personal effects.

This year, only the four air carriers: Med-view Airline, Max Air, Azman Air and Flynas applied and were screened, and approved by the government. It is good news that out of the four air carriers, three are Nigerians. Out of the three Nigerian-based carriers, two have made credible records in Hajj operations while one carrier which is debuting this year has harnessed great experiences from Umrah operations, ready for the 2017 Hajj with agility and enthusiasm. The expectations that the air carriers will perform maximally are high. And the 2017 Hajj pilgrims expect nothing less than well-coordinated, hitch-free and luxurious transportation from Nigeria to the Kingdom and back home on schedule.

It is heartwarming that Nigerians are investing in Hajj in the area of boosting local capacities. This has been the dream of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) to advance the Nigerian local content. In the absence of a national air carrier which in the past seemed to have had the monopoly in Hajj airlift operations characterized by that time with some regretful experiences, the investments by individual citizens and organizations in air travel service business is commendable. With steady development and forbearance, those who have owned aircrafts for the operations have grown from strength to strength, though there is no venture without challenges.

Just recently at the end of a two day conference of the Commission for Hajj and Umrah stakeholders, it was observed with great satisfaction the participation of Nigerian businessmen in the ownership of aircrafts to enhance airlift operations of pilgrims.

Local content in Hajj operations

Such bold step by Nigerian businessmen has heightened the capacities of the local content in Hajj operations.

It is also significant to state that the conditions set out by NAHCON in screening airlines were so tough that many air service providers did not want to partake. Some foreign air lines had tried in the past and failed. Just last year, nine airlines applied to transport Nigerian pilgrims to Saudi Arabia, but six were qualified by the screening committee after thorough examination.

Recently at the Senate

committee parley with NAHCON over the high cost of 2017 Hajj, Medview Managing Director, Alhaji Muneer Bankole took time to explain to the lawmakers the nitty-gritty of the fare and how it was fair. He cleared NAHCON of any blame and hoped for a successful 2017 Hajj.

The insistence of the Saudi authorities on 50/50 sharing of conventional pilgrims with their own carrier dates back to 2009 when Nigeria stopped payment of royalty to the Saudi Airlines for just nothing. This year, the controversy raged to the extent that state governors called for a rearrangement of existing air carrier contracts for Hajj on the basis that the selection of a foreign airline is harmful to Nigerian local content.

After a meeting with NAHCON, chairman of Nigerian Governors' Forum (NGF), Abdulaziz Yari of Zamfara state, said they appreciated the advice from NAHCON on the problems and future prospects of Hajj and pledged members' resolve to collaborate with the Commission and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to ensure renegotiation with the airlines along with the states as key stakeholders.

Besides, with the airlift operations expected to commence on July 30, noting less than success is expected from all the stakeholders especially the four airlines which are fully ready to do Nigeria proud. For Medview Airlines, there is no second. For Max Air, improvement is a continuous process. For Flynas Air, the air is free and for Azman, the young shall grow with the support geared towards development of the local content. It is of significance that the federal government considers rolling over the contract for the local air carriers for at least two years for proper planning and fare control.

Muhammad Ajah is an advocate of humanity, peace and good governance in Abuja.

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