Catering to the masses…
Every year, millions of Muslims make their way to Mecca on the Haj and Umrah pilgrimages. As Alan Dron reports, these two events now constitute a major challenge for both the airlines and the airports that serve this massive flow of people.
In 1937, the first pilgrim flight to Jeddah arrived from Cairo. Historically, the faithful had arrived by overland caravan, with the arduous journey naturally limiting the number of people who could fulfil one of Islam’s five basic tenets.
Numbers increased with the arrival of steamships in the 19th Century, but it was air transport that triggered the mushrooming numbers that now head each year for Mecca.
The Haj, in fact, has become the world’s greatest annual gathering of people. Even more people arrive for Umrah, or ‘lesser pilgrimage’, which takes place outside the period prescribed for the Haj.
The Haj ‘season’ runs for around two-and-a-half months, while Umrah stretched from November until the start of June, by the western calendar, in 2016.
Typically, pilgrims stay for a minimum of two weeks, although the duration of their visit can be as long as 40 days.
Unsurprisingly, Saudi Arabia’s airlines play a major role in transporting Moslems from around the globe to King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah and Prince Mohammad Bin Abdulaziz Airport in Madinah, both of which have dedicated terminals for pilgrims.
National carrier Saudia has a special Haj department, which comes under the airline chief commercial officer for commercial purposes, while a special ‘mass movement department’ looks after ground arrangements as part of the airport services department.
If Saudia does not serve a particular nation with scheduled services, it typically leases in aircraft to handle Haj and Umrah flights, said Sameer Khayyat, general manager, sales and revenue management for Haj and Umrah.
“We lease aircraft to serve those markets, because each market has its own characteristics and volume.”
Each country from which the pilgrims come has its differences. People often come at different times, depending on factors such as their nations’ school holidays. Some pilgrims also travel on specific dates, as performing their devotions on particular days is deemed to earn them additional credit.
In addition, flights from different countries will be stocked with foods with which passengers are familiar. Many pilgrims will not speak either Arabic or English, so Saudia staff or crews accompanying the leased aircraft who can speak the relevant languages are used.
Typically, Saudia will use between 26 and 36 aircraft for Haj flights and around 18 for Umrah services.
Modern security considerations mean that all pilgrims have to be fingerprinted when they arrive in Saudi Arabia: “The current situation – especially in certain countries – is very critical so we have a very high standard of safety and security, especially in airports and aircraft,” said Khayyat.
Saudi hybrid carrier Flynas, meanwhile, has what CEO Paul Byrne described as “an airline within an airline”. The subsidiary, Flynas hajj & umrah, uses Flynas’ air operator certificate (AOC) but operates in very different markets from the main airline.
Whereas Flynas flies scheduled flights mainly within Saudi Arabia and to regional neighbours such as Egypt, several Arabian Gulf states, Jordan and Turkey, Flynas hajj & umrah specialises in flights to regions such as Africa, Europe, southeast Asia, the Middle East and CIS countries in central Asia.
It serves, for example, several destinations in Kazakhstan; no fewer than eight points in Nigeria and roughly the same number in India, flying pilgrims directly into Jeddah and Medina.
“In addition to the Flynas fleet, we use wide-bodied wet-leased aircraft,” explained Ahmed Sultan, deputy CEO Flynas hajj & umrah. “We only engage with operators who are experienced, reliable and are familiar with Umrah and Haj operational requirements.
Last year, for Haj operations only, Flynas hajj & umrah wet-leased 11 high-density aircraft: three Boeing 747-400s, five B767-300s and three Airbus A330-300s, which were operated from early August to mid October 2016.
Flynas hajj & umrah has managed to steadily increase the number of airlifted passengers, year after year, in the pilgrimage season. When it started such flights in 2009, it airlifted around 25,000 pilgrims. However, by 2016, that figure had grown to around 120,000.
Companies such as Flynas hajj & umrah offer giveaways to pilgrims heading to Saudi Arabia, such as prayer mats and umbrellas, and make special provisions, including the distribution of booklet/flyers on board, written in the pilgrim’s own language, giving directions as to the correct way of performing Haj and Umrah rituals or simply providing the pilgrim with information about the allowed size/weight of the hand luggage.
To help the pilgrims in concentrating on performing their Haj rituals, airlines such as Flynas also provide assistance with baggage. Pilgrims who are scheduled to depart, after their completion of Haj, have their baggage collected from their places of residence in Mecca and Madinah 24 hours prior to the departure of their flights. The baggage is transported to the airport, where it is security-checked and made ready for carriage along with the pilgrim aboard his flight home.
Taking the bulk of the pilgrims who pour into Saudi Arabia each year is Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz International Airport, which is the site of one of the world’s most unusual terminal buildings.
The Haj Terminal Complex, which is separate from the main terminal, is immediately recognisable from its extremely unusual layout – the building has no walls, with natural convection being used to cool the interior. The roof is designed to resemble Bedouin tents – 210 of them, making it the world’s largest cable-stayed, fabric-roofed structure.
Because the fabric – Teflon-coated fibreglass, to be exact – has low heat transmission, it allows the sun to cast a warm light over the interior, while at night, the roof acts as a reflective surface, allowing uplights to bounce light off of it to the passengers below.
It is designed to be capable of handling 5,000 arriving passengers an hour at peak times, and more than 4,000 on departure. During peak days in the Haj season, around 65,000 pilgrims pass through the terminal, which is open 24 hours a day, with pilgrims moving through 14 arrival and departure lounges.
The airport’s figures for 2015 record that around 1.6 million passengers arrived or departed on Haj, while 5.2 million passed through the terminal for Umrah. In 2016, more than 13,000 flights brought Umrah pilgrims to Jeddah.
Madinah’s Prince Mohammad Bin Abdulaziz Airport, although smaller than Jeddah, is in some ways even more dedicated to religious tourism, with 84% of international passengers passing through it being on Haj and Umrah flights.
With the Saudi authorities investing heavily to expand Islam’s holiest sites, Madinah Airport expects to see a steadily increasing number of pilgrims passing through.
An indication of growth at Madinah – not just from religious, but general, traffic – can be seen in the fact that annual capacity, which is today 8 million annually, is scheduled to jump to 18 million under the next phase of development.
Like Jeddah, Madinah has a special Haj terminal, adjacent to the main terminal, which operates throughout the pilgrimage seasons. The airport also has six Haj pavilions that function as waiting areas for passengers.
As at Jeddah, special arrangements are in place for pilgrims using the terminal, said Engineer Sofiene Abdessalem, managing director of TIBAH Airports Operation Co.
“Since most of the passengers coming to perform pilgrimage are elderly, a special golf cart service is provided round the clock for their comfort.
“Similarly, the terminal is equipped with sufficient elevators and a sufficient number of escalators and travelators to facilitate those passengers with reduced mobility and to decrease the distances they need to walk. Dedicated ‘ask me’ teams are present to guide and help the pilgrims.
“During the high season, extra seasonal staff are employed by TIBAH, as well as all the other governmental and aviation organisations operating at Madinah Airport, to ensure smooth operations and meet pilgrims’ requirements.”