Your private hajj company should be able to present a number of package options to you for your hajj trip. It smacks of inexperience and disorganisation to explain hajj packages verbally without any written document or a brochure. Gone are the days when poor hajj arrangements hide under euphemistic expressions as: ‘early departure and return to Nigeria on a reliable airline, with accommodation in Makkah and Madinah very close to the Haram.’ How early, how reliable and how close…? For early departures and return, pray, tell the exact date, and name the so called reliable airline. If indeed your accommodation is close to Haram the hotel should be not anonymous; mention the hotel!
Pilgrims are fed-up with our mendaciousness in presenting the hajj package; they are asking the right questions. Our hajj packages should be plain on our various brochures so that the pilgrim will not be in doubt as to what he paid for and what type of services to expect.
The hajj brochure is our product manual, a user guide on what the hajj programme entails; we should be conscious of Allah in its contents and what we promise the pilgrims in it.
Yes, even in the best of arrangements there a moments when things may not go as planned; in such circumstances we should be able to bring our experience to bear by proffering workable solutions to unforeseen problems. Indeed, the experienced organizer would warn his intending pilgrims of the possibility of a change in date or time; if it does happen, he would not hide the fact that he has no control over such changes.
Like what happened to me recently aboard the best airline in the business, the Emirates Airline; (forget about that ‘bad’ airline with daily flights in and out of Lagos, which prides itself ‘the world’s five star airline’ but which its mother country, Qatar hates Nigerians so much, bars them from entering Doha, the capital, that even first and business class passengers are to remain in lounges at the airport for 16 or more hours to board their connecting flights …). So, Emirates is undoubtedly the best, but this is what happened to me on board the best airline in the world:
I left my hotel in Dubai (which is not Doha; Nigerians are still welcome here) and boarded my connecting flight EK803 to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Shortly before take-off (that never was) a slight problem was detected: water was not running in the lavatories. At least that was what we, laymen, could see as something unusual with Emirates flights. The pilot informed us later that there was a technical fault with the aircraft and that the engineers were doing their best to fix it.
He assured us that we shall be airborne in a few minutes. After about 30 more minutes the pilot was back with the information that the engineers have decided on replacing a part the spare of which will be brought from a warehouse metres away from the runway. The pilot was consistent in keeping us posted at regular intervals on what was being done about the delay. Nobody was asking any questions. Everybody was aware of what was causing the delay. We were all worried but informed on the various happenings towards solving the problem.
What initially looked like a few minutes’ delay protracted into hours. In fact lunch was served while our aircraft was still in its complete standstill position. Few minutes after we finished our lunch, that was about six and a half hours into our ordeal, there was a final announcement from the cockpit: ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ the pilot said, ‘I am afraid we can no longer use this aircraft to Jeddah. Another aircraft is ready for this service. Kindly take all your belongings and return to the boarding gate……………….’
For the first time in my life I boarded a flight, stayed for about seven hours in it, in the same position without movement; I would have reached my destination in 2 and a half hours. What was more painful, we had to pass through screening again, wait for another 40 minutes for the other flight to be made ready for boarding and then board a second time. You don’t need to ask me how I left during that period of uncertainty with the best airline in the world. I was grieved and sad.
Two days later I received this mail from Emirates (which I will reproduce in its entirety for its brevity and relevance to the point I’m trying to make) signed by no less a personage than Bruce Forbes, Vice President Customer Affairs:
Without Prejudice or Admission of Liability
Dear Mr Muhammad,
Emirates wishes to apologise for the unfortunate delay encountered on flight EK803 from Dubai to Jeddah, on 25 September. As you are aware the aircraft scheduled to operate this flight experienced technical difficulties. Although every effort is made to achieve on-time departures, which is an integral part of our product, there are occasions when flights are delayed/cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances (emphasis mine).
The safety and security of our customers and staff is of paramount importance to Emirates, and we are sure you will concur with this position.
Emirates appreciates that your travel has been prolonged, and we can assure you that every effort was made to ensure that your travel plans returned to normal as soon as possible.
Whilst we cannot change what has occurred, we would welcome the opportunity to restore your faith in Emirates. As a Business class passenger/Silver Skywards member, we have credited your Skywards account with 30,000 complimentary miles, as a gesture of goodwill.
Once again, please accept Emirates sincere apologies for the disruption to your travel arrangements. Let me assure you personally that this is an isolated event and we will do our utmost to restore your confidence in Emirates as your airline of choice.
As a service provider I learnt a lot from the above delay by Emirates, and the subsequent correspondence from its Vice President Customer Affairs. Even with the best of arrangements unforeseen problems may occur; what is expected of me, Without Prejudice or Admission of Liability, is constant update on what is being done to rectify the problem; to apologise, recognise the hitch and provide a suitable alternative followed, where applicable, by ‘a gesture of goodwill’ (like, in my case, the grant of 30, 000 complimentary miles to my Skywards account) for the purposes of restoring the confidence of my clients.
Just imagine what would have happened if you were on EK803 going for hajj, and you had a Saudi Arabian Airlines ticket to connect from Jeddah to Madinah. As I wrote here a fortnight ago, you need about 10 hours between the time you will land in Jeddah and that of your flight to Madinah in order to avert missing your flight and losing the fare of a non-refundable ticket. This is just one out of many likely occurrences in hajj.
To explain situations like the one I related above hajj packages should include an induction course for intending hajjis. I’ve mentioned on this page in the past that hajj induction does not only denote teaching hajj rites to intending pilgrims. I concede that it involves coaching them on how to perform hajj – many of them actually need it, but hajj induction course, also, is a period where the organised private hajj operator will interact with his pilgrims from Nigeria, explain the package and pass vital information on what the entire hajj programme is vis-à-vis the movement of the group in the Holy Land. He will be able to explain changes (if any) to the original itinerary, the difficult points to note on their trip and what his company intends to do about alleviating the difficulties. Each member will be in the picture, be prepared to adapt to unforeseen hitches – to know beforehand how smooth or rough a certain segment of the exercise may be. We need such forum as will afford us the chance of meeting members of the group even before we start the hajj journey.
Moreover, the hajj induction course is a Q and A session between the hajjis and the operation wing of the private hajj company. If all of us will introduce the hajj induction course in our packages we would nip a lot of problems in the bud. Information dissemination is the key to avoiding suspense which breeds suspicion and ill-feelings between the private hajj company and its clients. Once people don’t know and are not informed, they begin to assume.
Some of those who travel with private hajj operators do not get to meet them except in Saudi Arabia; the induction course should be an opportunity to get to know one another and to start forging alliances and nurturing mutual trust and respect. Unfortunately, some intending pilgrims who have travelled on hajj and umrah severally spurn any invitation to such a gathering; with the attendant problems they often create abroad about what they think should be because “that was how we did it the last time I went on hajj”. Now, as you must have gleaned from this column over time, hajj rites are the same every year but the logistic challenges and changes in procedure in Saudia each year are mind boggling. Last year’s experience may be no reliable guide for this year’s hajj logistics arrangement; just as the presence of fever is not an exact indicator of malaria fever.
From which roads you are allowed to use to how many people can share a tent, to which areas you are allowed to stay, these things change like a chameleon changes its hue. Intending pilgrims will do well to be at such induction courses and where that proves impossible, they should have someone take the details for them; unless, of course, the pilgrim was part of those that planned the year’s hajj in Saudia.