Hajj 2023: Fireworks as Hajj Airlift entered proactive “zooming speed’

Hajj operation
Hajj operation

Hajj: Fireworks as Hajj Airlift entered “zooming speed’

By Ibrahim Muhammed

“Mishaps like past mistakes are like knives, that either serve us or cut us and it primarily depends on how we grasp them either by the blade or the handle”.

The airlift of Nigerian pilgrims to Saudi Arabia for the 2023 hajj exercise is progressing amidst some challenges here and there. The zooming speed by which the airlift is moving contradicts the operational limitations brought upon by a longer number of hours, using of a lesser capacity of aircraft by some appointed Hajj Carriers and also the visa processing logjam caused by financial bureaucratism within the frame of international forex transaction at CBN.

Reading the voluminous messages received from intending pilgrims in Hajj Reporters’ social media inboxes may tempt you into believing that Nigerian pilgrims are yet to arrive in Saudi Arabia for this year’s Hajj. The tension-soaked anxiety complaints on whether they be airlifted to Saudi Arabia before the closure of Airports are justified when you consider the Hajj 2022 incidents.

However, despite the apprehension on the part of intending pilgrims and the challenges of delay in issuance of visas; the slow pace caused by ferrying pilgrims with lesser capacity Aircraft by Air Peace, the frustrating delay in commencement of airlifts by Azman and the twin incident involving Max Airline within this airlifts, Over 49, 246 pilgrims ( as at the time of writing this piece) have been transported from Nigeria to Saudi Arabia in an exercise that involved 117 flights operations from 9 airports within 21 days.

Taking an objective view of the hajj airlift connotes calculating the roles of all stakeholders in the airlift process.

For example, the responsibility of NAHCON as the apex hajj regulatory body, the responsibility of Hajj Air Carriers selected by NAHCON and appointed by FG to airlift Nigerian pilgrims. The fundamental responsibilities of States Muslims Pilgrims welfare boards in mobilizing pilgrims provide timely data to process pilgrims travelling documents, timely payment of pilgrim’s hajj funds to NAHCON, the roles of CBN in facilitating the transfer of funds and providing needed forex for pilgrims BTA, the roles of appointed Hajj officials working at various embarkation points actions the departing Zones, the timely provision of Aircraft by appointed Hajj Air carriers and roles of security and screening agencies.

The Hajj exercise is a multifaceted operation where its successes and its failures depend on several variables. For example, it is the responsibility of NAHCON to ensure timely implementation of procedures to process visas for applicants subject to timely payment of hajj fare for intending pilgrims and early transfer of such to NAHCON as at when requested. Immigrations service are to provide the E-passport as at when due to the applicant’s pilgrims, Customs, NDLEA, NAFDAC, Port Health Authority, and Security Agencies played critical roles in the screening of pilgrims at embarkation points.

It is the responsibility of CBN to effect the transfer of such to International Bank accounts as when requested by NAHCON and this also is subject to the availability of forex and other bureaucratic factors. By and large, NAHCON’s non-reliance on first options might have yielded a positive result as seen in the fast pace progress recorded so far.

However, IHR will continue to keep tabs on the appointed airlines, especially those who failed to operate with the Aircraft specified in the airlift agreements they signed with NAHCON.

Airlifting over 47,000 pilgrims in 110 flight operations within 20 days from 9 embarkation points showed that NAHCON has learned something from the 2022 hajj airlift dilemma.

Worthy of note, also is the decision by NAHCON to increase the number of Air Carriers this year. While there were only three carriers last year, namely, Max Air, Azman and Flynas, the number was increased to seven this year with the introduction of Air Peace, Aero Contractors, Arik Air and Valuejet Airlines. This has given the states flexible options of carriers to choose from and has enhanced healthy competition.

This year, NAHCON didn’t wait for the 11th hour before it invoked and implemented what I called ‘internal rescue’ of Airlines whose pilgrims are lagging. Yes, NAHCON seems to have grasped the knives of past years’ mistakes by the handle.

What is Internal rescue and why the ‘internal rescue’, you may query?

Internal rescue as I called it occurred when an appointed airline failed or delayed beyond certain hours to position its aircraft to airlift its allotted pilgrims or when such airlines have indicated that it may not be available for the scheduled airlift.

In such situations, NAHCON will direct another airline to fly the allotted pilgrims of that airline to save pilgrims from unwarranted psychological distress.

The inaugural flight this year was an ‘internal rescue operation by Max Air because NASARAWA pilgrims are allocated to Aero Contractors. The first batch of Jigawa pilgrims airlifted by Max was also a rescue operation due to an untimely delay by Azman Airline. Flynas has also rescued Nasarawa pilgrims when Aero contractors failed to show up on schedule. Aero contractors itself has airlifts Kaduna, FCT pilgrims on an ‘internal rescue’ operation.

“Takes no chance and gives no opportunity for later day story” is primarily behind the fast and relatively smooth movement of the airlift we are witnessing currently.

IHR, an NGO which yours sincerely coordinate is yet to receive complaints regarding the provision of BTA to pilgrims as happened last, which means, despite the reported scarcity of forex, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) has been able to meet its obligations to Nigerian Pilgrims on BTA.

The 2023 outbound airlift is a remarkable improvement from last year based on the comparable statistics so far and I urge that all associated observed lapses MUST be addressed immediately.

Of most importance is the safety of pilgrims and everyone involved, therefore, any “technical” issue affecting any airline must be thoroughly looked into and addressed according to global best practices. As often known, the key word in Aviation is SAFETY! SAFETY AND SAFETY!!!

However, NAHCON, States Muslim Pilgrims Welfare Boards and Hajj air carriers must adhere strictly to the return manifest to allow those on the first leg out to be airlifted on the first leg in. Management of pilgrim’s hand luggage should be given priority as being done before to reduce the time frame of screening at King Abdulaziz international airport.

Muhammad the National Coordinator, independent Hajj Reporters can be reached @ muhasecond2@gmail.com

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