A380 Hajj service could change the way pilgrims travel

The A380 aircraft is ideal for Hajj service with its high seat capacity, and hence low-unit seat costs.
Updated 29 August 2017
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A380 Hajj service could change the way pilgrims travel

LONDON: The annual Hajj pilgrimage is big business for those working in aviation, with vast numbers of Muslims from around the world flying in and out of Saudi Arabia.
For tour operators, airlines and brokers, Hajj and Umrah traffic represents a recurring stream of annual revenue.
That steady source of income for many companies could be challenged due to a new competitor for Hajj traffic looming on the horizon.
Malaysia Airlines is looking to launch a Hajj service using its surplus large A380 aircraft. The widely reported plans would involve reconfiguring the current 494-seat layout across three classes on some of its existing super jumbo jets to create a slightly cozier all-economy 700-seat aircraft.
If such plans were to be put in place and prove successful, it could to be a far more cost-effective way to move hundreds of pilgrims at one time in and out of the Kingdom than using smaller planes. “It is a little bit of a game changer for the Hajj traffic,” said Tobias Rueckerl, owner and CEO of Hajjaircraft and its parent company Adavco.
In 2016, 1.3 million Muslims from outside Saudi Arabia traveled to the Kingdom to complete Hajj, with 94 percent of those arriving in the country by plane, according to government statistics.
“The Hajj requires the efficient movement of large volumes of people. The A380 is perfect for this with its high seat capacity, and hence low-unit seat costs. For an airline like Malaysia Airlines with a large Muslim home market, it can find work for most of the year with Umrah pilgrimages driving travel outside of the annual Hajj period itself,” said aviation consultant John Strickland.
Often pilgrims will travel on chartered flights arranged by tour operators or government agencies flying in and out of Jeddah, taking anything from small 5-seater planes to the 200- or 300-seater aircraft typically used by commercial airlines.
Commercial airlines also lease extra planes to run Hajj-specific services. For example, Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia) leases Boeing 747 and A330 aircraft to run their Hajj services, said Abdulrahman Altayeb, vice president for corporate communications at Saudi Arabian Airlines.
Biman Bangladesh Airlines needs to lease wide-body aircraft capable of carrying more than 450 passengers in order to transport around 50,000 pilgrims to and from Saudi Arabia each year, said a spokesperson for the company.
Arranging Hajj travel can be a pricey business, for a variety of reasons. “Flights are becoming more and more expensive,” said Rueckerl. Sometimes government agencies can end up paying far more than they need to for aircraft, partly because they leave their Hajj plans to the last minute and are in urgent need of a plane.
Hajjaircraft typically deals with a regular client base — made up of airlines, tour operators and government agencies that come back each year. Nigeria is home to some of the company’s oldest most-established clients, Rueckerl said. “But in other countries it remains difficult — every year it is the same story. If you want state-of-the-art aircraft you have to secure them straight after the current Hajj,” he said, explaining how some countries’ tour operators still do not sufficiently plan ahead.
There is also a level of “fake” demand in the market, Rueckerl said, that has pushed up prices. What this means is that there are many different small brokers and operators all enquiring with the small number of airlines offering Hajj-specific flights, and all chasing the limited number of aircraft available.
The cost of travel could potentially be reduced if Malaysia Airlines deploys the A380 for Hajj. The airline is due to apply for its license this quarter to set up its pilgrimage service as a separate business from the main airline, Bloomberg reported in July, citing the airline’s CEO Peter Bellew.
The service could be operational in a year.
Malaysia Airlines did not respond to a request for comment.
The plans could help the airline generate more income from its surplus A380s.
“You don’t have a secondhand A380 market, and all of the operators are thinking what to do with the aircraft,” said Rueckerl, particularly now that some of the planes are verging on 10 years old.
Traveling by the reconfigured A380 could also be a more cost-efficient option for pilgrims. “The per seat price could be 20-25 percent lower than with a B747. That could make the whole Hajj operation very interesting with this aircraft,” he said. He forecasts that if the Asian airline is successful with its new venture, then other carriers may follow suit.
Already, Emirates has said that it will be operating an A380 service to Madinah to meet the increased demand during Hajj.
The Dubai-based airline also said in its August 17 announcement that it would be operating 45 additional flights to Jeddah and 12 additional flights to Madinah using various aircraft during the pilgrimage.
There are, however, some drawbacks with using larger planes such as the A380.
Smaller countries, particularly in Africa, often lack the infrastructure and airports to handle these super-jumbo jets, Rueckerl said.
“If you have a country like Niger, you have roughly 4,000-5,000 people traveling, but they are not traveling at once, but over a couple of weeks, then an A380 with 700 seats would be too large for them.”
While the A380 may make the Hajj travel market a little more competitive, there will remain pockets of opportunities for the smaller players.


Saudi Energy Minister calls for collective effort to secure shipping lanes

Updated 1 min 6 sec ago
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Saudi Energy Minister calls for collective effort to secure shipping lanes

  • Khalid Al-Falih: Saudi Arabia will do best to ensure the safety of shipping lanes
  • He expects OPEC members and other oil producers to meet soon to discuss an extension to oil supply cuts

TOKYO: Saudi Arabian Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih said Monday that countries need to cooperate on keeping shipping lanes open for oil and other energy supplies after last week’s tanker attacks in the Middle East to ensure stable supplies.

While he did not outline any concrete steps after the attacks that damaged two tankers on June 13, Falih said the Kingdom would do everything necessary to ensure safe passage of energy from Saudi Arabia and its allies in the region.

“We’ll protect our own infrastructure, our own territories and we are doing that despite the attempts to target some of our facilities,” Falih told reporters in Tokyo.

“But sea lanes of global trade need to be protected collectively by other powers as well. We believe that’s happening, but we need to make sure the rest of the world pays attention,” he said after a Japan-Saudi investment conference.

His comments came as Iran, which has been blamed by the US and Saudi Arabia for the attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, continued to escalate its rhetoric. Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, claimed Iran was responsible for security in the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, and called on US forces to leave the region, as tensions rose following last week's attacks on oil tankers

The attacks have shaken the oil market and rattled consumer countries that rely heavily on importing oil from the Arabian Gulf, much of which has to be transported through the Straits of Hormuz - the narrow shipping lane, which Iran has repeatedly threatened to disrupt.

Falih expects the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and other producers including Russia to meet the week after the G20 summit to be held in Osaka on June 28-29, to discuss an extension of a supply output cut agreement.

OPEC and other producers, an alliance known as OPEC+, have a deal to cut output by 1.2 million barrels per day (bpd) from Jan. 1. The pact ends this month and the group meets in coming weeks to decide their next move.

Falih said that OPEC was moving was toward a consensus on extending the agreement.

He said earlier this month that OPEC was close to agreeing to extend a pact on cutting oil supplies beyond June, although more talks were still needed with non-OPEC countries.

When asked if Russia is going to agree to continue the cuts, Falih said “absolutely.”

“We are maintaining the proper levels of supply that we have been having to bring inventory levels to where they belong. I hope that will continue in the second half with the assurances I have received from all the OPEC+ countries,” he said.

There was full commitment to put in place “a long term framework between the OPEC+ coalition to ensure that we work together” from next year, he said.

Oil demand growth has held up despite trade disputes roiling global markets, Falih said, adding he expects worldwide demand to be above 100 million barrels per day this year.

“We are not seeing a slowdown from either China, the US, India or other developed economies,” Falih said.

“The impact has been more on the sentiment side and fear, rather than actual impact,” he said.