By Ibrahim Muhammed
The scheduled signing of 2023 hajj airlift agreements by NAHCON and the hajj carriers could not be completed due to the ongoing crisis in Sudan. The five selected Nigerian airlines namely Max Air Air Peace, Azman Air, Aero Contractors, Arik Air and Value Jet promised to further make consultation before they will append their signatures to the airlift contractual agreement.
President Muhammadu Buhari had approved Saudi-based Flynas and other Nigerian airlines including Max Air Air Peace, Azman Air, Aero Contractors, Arik Air and Value Jet to fly Nigerian pilgrims. While the first five were selected to fly pilgrims from the 36 states and FCT, Arik and Value Jet were selected to offer chatter services to pilgrims travelling under private tour operators.
When NAHCON invited the airlines for a signing agreement on Thursday at the Hajj House in Abuja, only the Saudi-based Flynas signed the agreement while the representatives of other Nigerian airlines declined. Flyna’s position is based on the Bilateral Air Service Agreement Nigeria signed with Saudi Arabia on the Hajj airlift quota.
In the agreement, NAHCON allocated 28515 pilgrims to Flynas, 16326 to Max and Air Peace was to transport 11348 pilgrims.
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NAHCON Commissioner of Operations, Magaji Hardawa explained that the conflict in Sudan has put the airlines in a difficult position. He explained that all the airlines will now require longer flight paths to get to Saudi Arabia.
Independent Hajj Reporters, a civil society organization that monitors and reports hajj had earlier this week via press statement stated that the crises in Sudan may reconfigure the current arrangement put in place by the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria to airlift Nigerian pilgrims to Saudi Arabia and called on the federal government to quickly review and finds an alternative plan to serve as a backup. Here we are.
The suspension of signing of the hajj airlifts agreement by the Nigerian approved Airlines for further consultations should not come as a surprise to those who truly understand the algorithms of airline tickets pricing and why the closure of Sudan airspace portend serious challenges for Airlift of Nigerian pilgrims to Saudi Arabia for this year’s hajj exercise.
A layman will argue that the airliners have agreed to transport Nigerian pilgrims to Saudi Arabia and that it is none of NAHCON or pilgrims’ business how and which route they fly through to reach Saudi Arabia, but the professionals understand that in the aviation industry, not all 2 plus 2 is 4 .
First, the entire 2023 hajj airlift plans were structured based on the traditional mode of transporting Nigerian pilgrims via Sudan Airspace to Saudi Arabia. The prices of flight tickets were negotiated and agreed upon based on the flight time of flying via Sudan airspace which is approximately 4:30 minutes flight time. With the closure of the Sudan Air space, the Nigerian Hajj carriers will require additional 2 hours or more flight time to airlift pilgrims through alternative airspace. That is the odd development in the matter.
However, it is extremely disturbing that both NAHCON and the Nigerian-approved airliners had to wait until the day of signing the airlift agreement before they troubleshoot the negative impact the closure of Sudan Airspace will have on airlifts of pilgrims – particularly, the airliners who are professionals in the aviation industry – or do they think that NAHCON will reflect the difference in the flights time and the financial implications in the agreement after 2023 Hajj fare has been announced and pilgrims have paid?
There seems to be a communication gap which is not desirable at this critical moment especially with less than 16 days to the commencement of Airlift because Hajj air carriers were officially selected on the 7th of April and On April 16, Sudan’s CAA notified the world that all air navigation services have been suspended in Sudan’s airspace, including above FL245 in adjacent South Sudan, due to ‘security reason. There is 17 days gap in which the airliners could have drawn the attention of NAHCON to the likely effects this will have on their operations and table what they envisaged
Most importantly, the 2023 hajj fare was tailored to reflect the number of hours pilgrims from each state will spend before arriving in Saudi Arabia.
For example, Maiduguri to Jeddah is about 1609 nautical miles (2,979 kilometres) with 4 hours flight time, that is why Pilgrims from Maiduguri – Yola axis are to pay N2,979, 000:00 million as 2023 hajj fare. Pilgrims from Northwest zones like Kano, Kaduna, and Katsina are to pay N2,919,000:00 Jeddah to Kano is 1850 nautical miles (3426 Kilometers) with 4:30 minutes flight time.
However, Lagos to Jeddah is about 2269 nautical miles (4199 kilometres) with 5 hours and 26 minutes of flight time. To reflect the flight time, the pilgrims from Lagos are to pay N2,999, 000:00 million as the 2023 Hajj fare. With the crises in Sudan, the airlines will have to take another route that will completely distort the arithmetic of 2023 hajj fare computations, especially on-air tickets.
To me, the likely solution could have been for NAHCON to readjust prices of air tickets as embedded in hajj fare to reflect the flight time for each zone if the Sudan airspace remained closed – a difficult task that disorganized the entire 2023 hajj plan considering the timeline.
This is the dilemma caused by the crises in Sudan as earlier raised by Independent Hajj Reporters.
Now that Flynas has signed the airlift agreement, Nigerian-approved airliners may have no option but to accept and signed because the 28, 515 pilgrims that will be airlifted by Flynas cannot be billed by NAHCON and if that is the case, NAHCON cannot as well readjust hajj fare of the remaining pilgrims for the local airliners – unless the Federal Government wades to shoulder the differences as the situation may activate
Yes, and I repeat, NAHCON and the airlines are faced with two immediate hard choices: To review the 2023 hajj fare to reflect the current challenges (a no- go-area -option), for the airlines to accept the unforeseen challenges and take it as part of a business tough call, for the Federal Government to wade in and bridge the gap of contention.
May Almighty Allah wades into the crises in Sudan and makes this year’s hajj a success Amen