With the 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: Medview Airline, Max Air, Azman Air and Flynas applied and were screened, prequalified 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 National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) for Hajj and Umrah stakeholders to mark the 10th Anniversary of the establishment of the Commission, an event that was chaired by the Sultan of Sokoto and President-General, Nigeria Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA), Alhaji Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar, and supported by the Honourable Minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) and immediate past Chairman/CEO of NAHCON, Mallam Muhammad Musa Bello, it was observed with great satisfaction the participation of Nigerian businessmen in the ownership of aircrafts to enhance airlift operations of pilgrims. Such bold step by Nigerian businessmen has heightened the capacities of the local content in Hajj operations.

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It is also significant to state that the conditions set out by NAHCON in screening airlines are so tough that many air service providers would not want to partake. Some foreign air lines have 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. The processes include receiving of applications and other necessary documents from interested carriers who would face the NAHCON high-powered screening committee made up of members from the FAAN, NCAA, NAMA, EFCC, ICPC, Ministry of Aviation and other relevant agencies and organizations. After all these, the President grants the final approval. But all processes must be in conformity with the guidelines and regulations by the civil aviation authorities of Nigeria and Saudi Arabia.

Time gyrates, indeed. Some airlines that participated in Hajj operations in the past have gone into extinction due to mismanagement or stringent requirements presently demanded for prequalification. There was a period the one-time great Kabo Air was in control. It used to be an undefeatable authority and it did fantastically well in the operations. Also Chanchangi, Tradecraft, Meridian and Bellview were common names to recall in the Nigerian Hajj airlift exercises. They have all gone. As for Max Air and Medview, they have built a career in the Hajj system and have shown the capacity to remain in business for a very long time to come, God willing. Both have maintained a level of excellence. They have come to assist Nigerian pilgrims go to Hajj and come back home with ease and under safety and schedule.

As the name implies, viewing the Madinah of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) is a blessing and a recommended holy trip. Three Mosques a Muslim is recommended to travel to visit are: Haram in Makkah, Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah and Aqsa Mosque. Medview tends to represent the spiritual view of the holy city. Chief operating officer and manager of Medview Airline, Engineer Lookman Animashaun described his company as a fast growing domestic carrier which has the capacity to airlift a minimum of 25,000 Muslim pilgrims to Makkah this year. He recently told the press that three aircraft types, including Boeing 747; Boeing 777 and the Boeing 767 would be deployed specially for 2017 Hajj operations, expressing the full preparedness of the company for a successful outing. He assured all intending pilgrims that their airlift this year will be smooth and full of comfort. According to him, Hajj operation is still one of the huge points for Medview Airline which takes it so seriously. “We will continue to do that and also continue to improve on what we have done in the previous years to make sure that we give the best services to the pilgrims. That, we will continue to maintain and that has always been our standard’, he averred.

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He opted for the allocation of adequate pilgrims to domestic carriers by the government, urged support for development of the local carriers and advised the aviation agencies, to provide adequate facilities at the airports because since operation is about people, all facilities that are not up to date should be put in order to serve the air travelers.

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.

Max Air was initially Mangal Airlines named after its founder, Alhaji Dahiru Mangal. It rebranded in 2008. On record as at today, Max Air has operated a fleet of Boeing 747 aircraft on various charter missions across the globe. The carrier has specialist experiences in Hajj and Umrah for over a decade. Its fleet is made up of two Boeing -300, three Boeing-400 and a VIP Embraer ERJ-135 with registration numbers: 5N-BMG, 5N-DBM, 5N-DBK, 5N-HMB, 5N-HMM and M-ANGA respectively.

Azman Air Services Limited is a Kano based domestic airline company established in 2010 by Alhaji Abdulmunaf Yunusa Sarina. The airline operates scheduled domestic passenger services as well as international trips to Saudi Arabia. It successfully operated 2017 Umrah services. However, Azman was one of the three airlines that were disqualified by the Saudi General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA) alongside Dornier Aviation Nigeria AEP Ltd and Top Brass. Hopes are high that its participation in the 2017 Hajj will open up more ways for its development and general enhancement of the local content.

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Flynas is the Saudi designated air carrier which entered into the Nigerian airspace in 2015. Since its debut, there have been controversies over the allocation of pilgrims it demands. Investigations show that the Nigerian Hajj air fare is attractive to the Saudi Arabian authorities who have capitalized on the bilateral air service agreement (BASA) backed by a Saudi Royal decree which the GACA signs with every participating nation in Hajj to insist on sharing the air traffic by 50/50 with Saudi designated carrier. It is, therefore, a task on the Nigerian carriers to see how air fare for Hajj can be made unattractive.

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 in Hajj airlift programming, organization and perfection. For Max Air, improvement is a continuous process and assurance is its success base. 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.

By Muhammad Ajah
Muhammad Ajah is an advocate of humanity, peace and good governance in Abuja. E-mail [email protected]