Private air companies that have been taking part in the airlift of Nigerian pilgrims over the years also made appearances at the Senate Public Hearing through their various representatives. Each company informed the Committee about its experiences in the number of years it has been ferrying pilgrims to the holy land, challenges and capabilities in terms of fleet and staffing. This subtle message of a company projecting itself as operationally more competent than the rest was clearly descried by participants as well as distinguished members of the Committee. The air carriers were however unanimous on the following issues:
Government intervention in fixing an abated rate for the US dollar is key to reducing the cost of Hajj because all air expenditure is dollar-based – navigational charges, overflight cost, pilots’ remuneration, spare-parts purchase, and all.
$1,700 is the rate at which they bid for Hajj 2018 operations, the same as 2017 even though last year’s rate, after discussion with NAHCON committee, they reduced $50, but for this year, with price of oil at $70 per barrel which is likely to rise to about $80 within the year, the rate of $1,700 is ‘honestly, not achievable’. It is absolutely inconceivable that any reduction is sought in this rate. ‘We should rather be thinking of an increase’ rather than abatement of the rate.
Taking part in Hajj operations means four sector flights where ‘we take people into Saudi Arabia, and ferry back empty; and the fuel cost applies to both inbound and outbound trips’, as well as expenses for cabin-crew and overflight charges. The routine is repeated after the Hajj where ‘we go empty for the return of the pilgrims out of Jeddah; so ours is a double cost exercise’. The least one could be charged by any regular carrier for a two-sector flight is $1000 for an economy seat ticket to Jeddah for example. Therefore, the rate of $1,700 ‘is discounted already’. The aviation fuel was bought at less than N200 per litre; this year it is more than N240.
The priority of indigenous carriers is serving Nigerian pilgrims; otherwise, rates in neighbouring West African countries are above $2000 per pilgrim.
Private air carriers have the capacity to carry the entire pilgrims of Nigeria to Hajj, thus there is no reason to surrender a certain percentage of our pilgrims to a Saudi Arabian airliner as is the case since 2014. They called on the Committee to speak with the Saudi authorities through the diplomatic channels to allow Nigerian companies handle airlift of our pilgrims 100%.
The Committee appreciated the difficulties of the carriers in the four sector flight trips two of which will be empty flights, plus whatever charges may accrue due to delays in departures where aircrafts have to wait for pilgrims to board for hours on end. It drew the attention of NAHCON Chairman on the need to speak to the government on the issue of dollar subsidy which should not be confined to BTA since the bulk of the expenses is in the operation. ‘Reducing the operational cost’, the Committee noted, ‘is possible by subsidising the dollar rate. Forcing the carriers to do the impossible is inimical to safety and aviation standards.’ The Committee advised that if NAHCON Chairman desires its intervention as an arm of government in facilitating a private audience with His Excellency, President Muhammad Buhari on this issue, ‘the Senate will avail’ and even accompany him on such a visit in order to have a 50 percent reduction in the dollar rate for Christian and Muslim pilgrimages. In this regard, NAHCON Chairman ‘will be invited to an Executive Session of the Senate for further discussions’.
However, the Committee did not accept the example cited by some presenters of the rate of $2000 from ‘neighbouring West African countries since some of them are further geographically from Nigeria, increasing, as in the case of Senegal, for instance, to about 10 or so hours to Jeddah. But the response was ‘not exactly, Mr Chairman, the rate we signed with Senegal was actually $2,400. Distance is not the issue. The Benin Republic is a close neighbour that we served three years ago, and since our aircrafts are too big to land at their airport, they had to bring their pilgrims to Lagos airport by buses from where we carried them to Jeddah at the rate of $2,200 per pilgrim.’
On forcing Nigeria to surrender 50 percent of its pilgrims to be airlifted by Saudi carriers the Chairman of the Committee said, ‘the issue has been discussed in the Aviation Committee of which I’m a member; we intend to discuss it extensively with the Minister of Aviation, who is in a better position to take it up even with the Saudi Aviation Minister. We on our part shall try our best to reverse the situation through diplomatic channels; it is not acceptable to Nigerians. Many carriers in Nigeria are capable of carrying our pilgrims. We understand that other countries have objected to that policy. India’s pilgrims, for example, are carried by their local airlines, Pakistan, Indonesia …why not Nigeria? We can start by giving them 20% and ultimately drop to nought percent.’
This view has the interest of Nigerians at heart and it is commendable, therefore. It, however, ignores the history of the percentage given to a Saudi carrier during Hajj in each country. It is a Royal Edict of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that all countries should give a 50 percent quota of their airborne pilgrims to a Saudi carrier. Nigeria was the last country to implement it and it nearly cost us Hajj 2014. It is beyond the Minister of Aviation in Saudia. The then Foreign Affairs Minister of Nigeria signed the agreement to implement this quota for Saudi airlines since 2009 or so. NAHCON Chairman will speak more on this when it is time for him to make his presentation.
The Committee complained that each year, the Nigerian Hajj Mission has been having the problem of liaison with top government agencies and departments while in Saudia. It seems that wittingly or unwittingly, we have done away with the institution of the Ameerul Hajj. During the 2015 Hajj the Committee that went on Hajj realised that prior to the current situation, during the Ameership of His Eminence the Sultan, or any other first class traditional ruler he chose to stand in for him as Ameerul Hajj, the Saudi authorities tended to listen more to Nigerian Hajj concerns than when things were left at the hands of NAHCON, who have to go through protocol, calling at the Nigerian Embassy in Riyadh or the Consulate in Jeddah to book an appointment. The Committee, therefore, called on the government to look into the possibility of reinstating the Ameerul Hajj Office.
I am not unaware of the potential clashes in duties, authority and even personalities this may engender but I am sure that if the government wishes to improve the plight of the pilgrims and ease the task of NAHCON, the office of the Ameerul Hajj can be created with no overlapping duties or functions with that of the leadership of NAHCON. All operational aspects of the Hajj Mission would remain under the control of NAHCON while the Ameerul Hajj will be handling spiritual and diplomatic matters. I will continue next week, inshaa Allah on this point.
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