Until recently, airlift of pilgrims to the Holly Land of Mecca was characterised by hiccups, including the failure of airlines to bring back the pilgrims they had taken to Saudi Arabia and undue delays during the return flight back to Nigeria.
THISDAY investigations reveal that this was due to non-availability of operating aircraft and poor planning, especially as the airlift of pilgrims involves heavy passenger traffic. Many of the airlines that carry out flights of pilgrims usually record full load factor. So when some of the airlines lease aircraft and take the pilgrims to the Holy Land; the equipment might not be readily available to bring them back after the Hajj.
For many years, the airlift of pilgrims continued to be problematic that some of the pilgrims were left in the Holy Land weeks after the Hajj. This continued until the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) stepped in to strictly regulate the Hajj services and ensured that airlines designated to operate Hajj have the needed aircraft and other logistics and could operate safely.
Possibly it was because of this challenge that prompted the Saudi Arabia authorities to insist on airlifting about 40 percent of the pilgrims with Saudi registered airlines.
These and other challenges were recently x-rayed by the former Senior Special Adviser to the President on Aviation and a stakeholder of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCOM), Captain Shehu Iyal, who also suggested ways to improve Hajj operations in Nigeria.
In a presentation titled: â€˜Contributions of Aviation Agencies to Hajj Operations in Nigeriaâ€™, to mark the 10 years anniversary of NAHCON, held at the National Mosque Auditorium recently, Captain Iyal identified the significant roles played by aviation agencies like NCAA and the Federal Airports Authority of Nigerian (FAAN) to facilitate successful hajj operation in the country.
He noted that today most of the aforementioned problems have been solved because some Nigerian airlines now prepare well for the Hajj service and ensured that aircraft are made available for the operations.
Iyal said NCAA issues operating licences/permits to airlines; ensures compliance by the carriers with international standards and recommended practices; inspects and certifies all Hajj aircraft before deployment and during operation (to and fro); inspects and certifies designated airports for Hajj flights and protects the rights of travelling pilgrims.
He noted that FAAN is responsible for the development and maintenance of all airports including those used for Hajj flights, which include the provision of facilities and accommodation for safe orderly and expeditious processing of pilgrims at the airports; the provision of adequate facilities and personnel for effective security at all Hajj airports and efficient coordination of all other government agencies present at Hajj airports.
According to him, the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) is mainly responsible for provision of air traffic and navigational services to all Hajj flights and also responsible for provision and maintenance of navigational aids and facilities at Hajj airports; while the Nigerian Meteorological Agency (NIMET) provides weather related information to Hajj carriers for safe conduct of flight operations during departure, en-route and arrival phases of all flights.
Iyal remarked: â€œTherefore, that the aviation agencies are crucial for successful Hajj operations and anytime these agencies were found wanting in carrying out their responsibilities, it adversely affects Hajj operations.â€
The former Senior Special Adviser to the President recommended that for Hajj airlift to continue to be successful and to ensure airlift of pilgrims does not retrograde to the failed efforts of the past; government must have to improve the system.
He recommended that there should be training and re-training of personnel in relevant aviation related duties and responsibilities; application of technology in major aspects of NAHCONâ€™s Hajj and Umrah activities; the establishment and maintenance of good working relationships with a similar organisations abroad to stimulate exchange programmes that would impact positively on the local workforce to enhance their performance and efficiency.
â€œAlso, facilities at Hajj terminals should be upgraded and prepared for 24 hour operations. There should be partnership with other international bodies involved in the airlift of pilgrims and the Nigerian air carriers should continue to invest in equipment and capacity building,â€ Iyal said.
On the insistence by the Saudi authorities to airlift about 40 percent of Nigerian pilgrims with their registered airlines, Iyal advised that the federal government â€œshould dialogue with Saudi Arabia authorities with a view to reversing the policy that insists that its own carriers should airlift 40 percent of Nigerian pilgrims. This is because Nigeria is a sovereign nation and it has the capacity in terms of equipment, manpower and facilities to effectively airlift 100 percent of its pilgrims.â€
Iyal noted that this was necessary in order to support Nigeriaâ€™s indigenous carriers, â€œso I recommend that the federal government should grant waivers on aeronautical charges to designated carriers. This will help the airlines to increase operational funds.â€
Iyal, who is also into airline charter services operator, traced the history of airlift in Nigeria to 1948 when a group of businessmen namely, Late Alhaji Ibrahim Gashash, Alhaji Haruna Kassim and Alhaji Mahmuda Dantata all from Kano acted as pilgrimsâ€™ agents. That was when the first airlift took place.
â€œThe few flights involved in the airlift of pilgrims then were operated by Aden Airways Dc3 aircraft on charter to West African Airways Corporation (WAAC). Pilgrims from other West African countries particularly Senegal passed through Kano International Airport to perform Hajj. The airport which was commissioned in 1935 was a connecting point for most of the West African travelers to the other continents of the world. The hajj and its attendant activities widened the scope of aviation activities in Kano,â€ he said.
He also remarked that the turnaround in successful Hajj operation in Nigeria came with the establishment of NAHCOM, which service kicked off in 2007, stressing that to consolidate on the improvement achieved so far, NAHCOM and NCAA must continue to work together for seamless Hajj operation in Nigeria.