Three airline companies will be responsible for the airlifting of Nigerian pilgrims to and from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia during the 2016 Hajj exercise. They are two Nigerian companies: Med-view and Max Air in addition to a Saudi Arabian company Fly- Nas. The trio made the list after serious challenges that greeted the Nigerian submission to the Saudi General Authority for Civil Aviation (GACA). The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between Saudi Arabia and Nigeria has a provision that air traffic for 2016 Hajj was subject to instructions by the Saudi GACA.
One of the reasons that led to the final selection of the three air carriers was the provision of the MoU. The policy of the commission mandates that all service providers in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia namely: Air carriers, excess luggage carriers, accommodation providers in Makkah and Madinah, food caterers, transport providers, tent providers, zamzam providers, amongst others be properly screened by the Commission. Agreements are signed between each service provider and the Commission on behalf of the Nigeria pilgrims and every bit of the contracts is clearly spelt out. Nine air carriers and four excess luggage carries had made the final list at the opening of bidding which took place in March 2016 at Stonehedge hotel, Abuja.
The screened carriers were Azman Air Services, Chanchangi Airlines, Dornier AIEP, Fly-Nas, Kabo Air Limited, Max Air Limited, Med-View Airlines, Skypower Express Airways Limited and Top Brass, while applicants for excess luggage were Cargo Zeal Technologies Limited, Evergreen and White, Med-View International Travels and Cargo and NAHCO Aviance. The committee that conducted the screening was made up of the executive commissioners of the Commission, Board members representing the six geopolitical zones, representative of the office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), aviation experts from the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), NAMA, NIMET, AIPB, Customs, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC), officials of Osun, Kano, Nasarawa states and the FCT who represented all other states. Bar. Alhassan Abdulkarim from the Commission served as the secretary to the committee.
The federal government approved six of the air carriers: Med-view Airlines Limited, Max Air Limited, Dornier Aviation Nigeria AEP Limited, Top Brass, AZMAN Air Services and a Saudi Arabia designated carrier Fly-Nas Air. This was after the commission had recommended same to the presidency.
The government also approved two companies to airfreight pilgrims’ excess cargo. They are: NAHCO Aviance and Med-view International Travels and Cargo. NAHCON communicated the federal government’s approved carriers to the Saudi General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA) to accord them all the necessary logistic and consular supports to enable them have smooth plan and execution of their assignment through prompt issuance of necessary visa to their officials, as well as officers of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA). But alas, there came a challenge. The Saudi government through its aviation authority, GACA, rejected three of the six, even as all Nigeria’s efforts to ensure acceptance of all through diplomatic channels failed.
They said that only airlines that operate schedule flights into the Kingdom are recognized by them. In the alternative, they demanded for 50% of the Nigerian pilgrims. The GACA demanded the implementation of the bilateral agreement signed on September 27, 2010 between Nigeria and the Kingdom on the 50% sharing of Nigeria’s hajj quota as obtainable in other nations: Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Malaysia, amongst others.
The demand is that the total number of pilgrims allocated to Nigeria every year be shared 50:50 between Nigerian air carriers and Saudi Arabian Airlines or its designated carrier. The genesis of this struggle is interesting. Nigeria engaged the Saudis for several years on this traffic sharing demand until it reached a point that Nigeria had no option than the bilateral aviation agreement between the two countries.
Since 2009, many correspondences were exchanged and meetings held by the aviation sectors of the two countries. Sometimes the Saudi Ministry of Hajj was involved. Nigeria’s insistence on local content nearly spelt doom for Hajj operations in 2014 when the Ministry of Hajj sent warning letter to Nigeria through the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the matter.
The implication may have been to stop Nigeria from that year’s Hajj. Part of the letter dated April 23, 2014 reads: “the authorities in Nigeria should be ready to bear the consequences of violating such agreement in line with bilateral agreement which was signed by both parties, in addition to the terms stated in the international treaties regarding the equal sharing of airlifting opportunities between both countries.” In addition, it accused Nigerian authorities of complicating the efforts made by the Saudi Arabian national air carrier to partake in the airlift operations as agreed by both parties. It read further; “it should be noted that the authorities concerned in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not forfeit its agreed quota for the airlift of pilgrims as it occurred in previous years. Furthermore, it will ensure that the quota for Saudi Arabian Airline is guaranteed by the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) which is the body vested with that responsibility before the commencement of the airlift of pilgrims during this year’s Hajj season.”
In another letter on May 14, 2014, the Saudis expressed consternation over exclusion of Fly-Nas from the operations, noting that Fly-Nas was ranked the second national air carrier in the Kingdom. However, in 2010 a Saudi-based airline Al-Wafeer was approved to airlift pilgrims under tour operators. It could not market itself, so it operated only one flight. In 2011, Nas Air of Saudi Arabia was approved but it could not market itself to the states, so it could not operate that year. In 2013, Nas Air was approved to airlift tour operators’ pilgrims; it failed to operate due to poor marketing. In the same year, the Saudi Arabian airline applied to participate but later withdrew before the opening of the bid. In 2014, both Saudi airline and Fly-Nas applied for states and tour operators respectively sequel to a meeting between aviation authorizes of both countries on 9th and 10th February, 2014.
The former applied late after closing date, while latter did not comply with the Nigerian aviation regulations. On August 11, 2014, a 17-man high-powered delegation led by the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs II Dr. Nurudeen Muhammad met with the Director-General of GACA Dr. Faisal H. Al-Sugair and his 10-man team in Jeddah to further discuss and agree on the allocation of Nigerian pilgrims for airlift by the Saudi-based airlines. It was agreed, amongst others, that 9,500 pilgrims from Abuja and Kaduna axis be given to Saudi Arabian airline or Fly-Nas on its behalf without third party carriers; that GACA would facilitate allocation of direct flight slots to Madinah to approved carriers in accordance with Madinah Hajj allocation procedures; and that both parties meet immediately after the year’s Hajj to agree on a framework to enable participation of Saudi national carriers in the airlift operation according to GACA Hajj instruction.
The agreement was endorsed by the leaders of both parties. On 16th and 17th February, 2015, a 29-man delegation led by two permanent secretaries of Federal Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Aviation met in Jeddah with GACA delegation led by its Safety and Air Transport manager and his 12-man team. In an agreement signed by Ambassador Danjuma N. Sheni of Foreign Affairs and Captain Mohammed Ali Jamjoom of GACA, the two parties agreed, amongst others, that Nigeria will allocate 25% of its pilgrims (16,000) to Fly-Nas for 2015 Hajj, while there will be a yearly increment of the allocations as follows: 2016-35%, 2017-45% and 2018-50%. The two parties agreed that the memorandum shall come into force with immediate effect and shall supersede all previous arrangements.
For 2016 Hajj, the commission has signed agreements with the three approved air carriers during an that took place at the conference hall of the commission early July in the presence of members of the Senate committee on Foreign Affairs, House committee on Nigeria-Saudi Arabia Parliamentary Friendship and Hajj Affairs, Saudi Embassy in Abuja and chief executives of the airlines as well as senior management staff of the commission. The commission bluntly told the carriers that nothing less than high standard service delivery in term of timeliness, comfort and commitment will be accepted since the agreement was on behalf of all Nigerian pilgrims who cannot be present by themselves but who deserve to receive quality services for their hard-earned money.
The presence of members of both Chambers of the National Assembly and the Saudi Arabia embassy was for the first time in the history of signing such agreements. The Chairman, senate committee on foreign Affairs, Sen. Monsurat Sunmonu applauded the commission’s transparency and commitment in the process of air carriers’ selection, while chairman, House Committee on House committee on Nigeria-Saudi Arabia Parliamentary Friendship and Hajj Affairs, Hon. Abdullahi Salame urged synergy amongst the air carriers.
It will be recalled that since the participation of Saudi-based Fly-Nas in the Nigerian operations, certain privileges have been granted Nigeria in term of exclusion from paying royalties by the pilgrims, easy acquisition of airlift slots to Nigerian air carriers and facilitation of direct flight into Madinah from all the departures centers in Nigeria. It will also be recalled that a former governor of Sokoto state once offered an open cheque to the Saudi Airline to airlift the state contingents to Hajj at any cost the airline would charge.
Written by Muhammad Ajah.