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Published On: Mon, Jun 30th, 2014

NAHCON, pilgrims’ airlift and matters arising

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NAHCONBy Maryam Garba Hassan

Recent media reports have indicated that a controversy could trail the distribution of slots to airlines for airlift of Nigeria’s intending pilgrims to the holy land. The reports show that Max Air is likely to win more slots than the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) has prescribed. NAHCON had in a tender published in national newspapers in January this year, stated that no airline should airlift more than 40,000 of the 76,000 pilgrims slots granted Nigeria by the Saudi authorities for this year’s Hajj. The commission, in the advertisement, invited qualified local and international airlines as well as travel agents, to bid for slots to convey pilgrims from various states of Nigeria to and from Saudi Arabia, during the 2014 Hajj, expected to commence in September.

NAHCON specifically stated in the tender that the maximum number of pilgrims an airline can airlift to and from Saudi for the 2014 Hajj is 40,000 out of the total number of slots allocated to Nigeria by the Saudi Authorities. However, in what appears to be a contradiction of this particular requirement, the commission allows state Muslim pilgrims welfare boards to choose airlines of their choice to convey their pilgrims to and from the Holy land. The Commission has for years maintained that state Muslim pilgrims’ boards or agencies have the right to choose from among the major designated air carriers or travel agencies to transport their intending pilgrims to Saudi Arabia for the hajj. By this, the Commission is giving room for the violation of one of its own conditions given to qualified airline carriers. Because, this, by implication, meant that one airline that is eminently qualified could be the preferred of all pilgrims boards, and may win much more slots than the 40,000 earmarked for each one. More so, in terms of possessing carriers, some of the airlines have advantage over others.

The commission’s tender had also listed the availability of such aircraft that meet safety standards as condition for application. It said: “Applicants are to note that, Boeing 747-200 and newer series aircraft with capacity to carry a minimum of 450 passengers, or other wide-bodied aircraft with capacity to carry a minimum of 300 passengers are required for the operation. All the aircraft must meet the safety requirements of Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) and the Saudi Arabian General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA)”. Incidentally, Max Air, our investigations have shown, is the most qualified and is the only airline with the maximum number of Boeing 747 aircraft, giving it an edge over the other prospecting carriers. Already, some of the traditional air carriers are fidgety, expressing fears that they may technically be knocked out as more and more state pilgrims boards show their preference for Max Air. Sources in the aviation industry show that the number of boards choosing Max Air as preferred carrier is rising based on the aircraft in its fleet, which

are widely believed to have met the NCAA and GACA safety requirements.

Besides, Max Air has also fallen in the category of the first choice carrier for most state pilgrims boards, in view of its acknowledged competence, sources said.

A stakeholder however faulted NAHCON as a regulatory body for the crisis lurking in the corner, saying it should have treated the information with utmost confidentiality until it is through with the sharing of the slots among the airlines.

According to the stakeholder, the commission should not have allowed

states to choose the airlines to convey its pilgrims to the holy land and back to Nigeria, but that it should have shared the slots among the designated airlines based on their experiences, capacity, competence, efficiency and other requirements.

However, other stakeholders see nothing wrong with Max Air airlifting most or even all the 76,000 pilgrim slots allotted to Nigeria by the Saudi authorities given the aircraft in its fleet and its widely acknowledged reputation in the Hajj transport business over the years. For now, all eyes are on NAHCON to see how it manages the potential crisis lurking over the planned transportation of intending pilgrims to this year’s Hajj. Will it amend this particular provision that gives state pilgrims welfare boards the liberty to choose their airline carriers? Will it force airlines on states by not allowing to make their choice as the case has been in the last few years? Or, will it allow an airline to transport more than the maximum number of pilgrims per airline, which is contrary to what it stipulated in its tender? This means that NAHCON is faced with the task of having to strike a delicate balance among a multiple of seemingly contradictory demands.

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