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.


KSRelief signs agreements for relief to Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians

Updated 25 April 2019
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KSRelief signs agreements for relief to Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians

  • Al-Rabeeah: We have no hidden agenda in Syria and we work through international organizations

BEIRUT: The general supervisor of the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (KSRelief), Dr. Abdullah Al-Rabeeah, signed on Wednesday seven agreements with Beirut and international and civil organizations operating in Lebanon to implement relief projects targeting Syrian and Palestinian refugees as well as the most affected host communities in Lebanon.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who participated in the symposium at the Four Seasons Hotel Beirut to sign the agreements, praised the strong Saudi-Lebanese relations, which have existed for decades, and stressed Lebanon’s keenness to ensure their permanence and development.

He said: “The meetings Al-Rabeeah has held with different Lebanese political and religious authorities over the past two days during his visit to Lebanon, under the guidance of King Salman, indicate the Saudi leadership’s true desire to deepen the fraternal ties with the Lebanese, support Lebanon’s unity, independence, sovereignty and coexistence formula, and protect its existence from the repercussions of all the fires, crises and interventions that plague many countries.”

During the symposium, which was attended by a large group of political, religious and social figures, Al-Rabeeah called on the international donor community to shoulder more responsibility.

Addressing the implementing bodies, he said: “It is time to reconsider your working mechanisms in order to develop them and improve procedures to avoid negative impacts.”

“What I mean by reconsidering working processes is that there is a need to work professionally and skillfully because there are not many resources, and we must eliminate bureaucracy and speedily make the most of resources,” Al-Rabeeah told Arab News.

He stressed the importance of developing a close partnership between the donor and the implementer of projects, highlighting that KSRelief’s work is subject to international and regional oversight mechanisms as well as its own internal control mechanisms.

“We have two strategic partners, and when agreements are signed with the recipients of assistance, this means accepting oversight terms,” he said.

Al-Rabeeah said: “Saudi Arabia supports the safe return of Syrian refugees to their country, and so is the case for Yemen.”

“Saudi Arabia has supported peaceful dialogues, which restore security and stability,” he said. “In order for this to happen in Syria, we support the efforts of the United Nations and implement (as KSRelief) relief programs inside Syria. We also have major programs and we count on the UN to ensure a safe return for Syrian refugees.”

On the Syrian regions in which KSRelief is implementing its programs and the difficulties faced, Al-Rabeeah told Arab News: “We have nothing to do with military or religious matters, and wherever there is security, we work. We also work through the UN and the international organizations inside Syria, and we do not have any hidden agenda in this field.”

He stressed that “participating in rebuilding Syria requires security and stability, and the Saudi leadership hopes for a peaceful solution as soon as possible. Until this is achieved, the relief work will continue and won’t cease.”

Al-Rabeeah announced that KSRelief is implementing a quality program to rehabilitate recruited children in Yemen alongside its education, protection, health and environment projects.

“There are those who recruit children to fight in Yemen, violating all humanitarian laws. Our center rehabilitates them so that they are not used as terrorist tools in the future,” he said.

Al-Rabeeah emphasized that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 has given relief work its share, especially in terms of volunteering programs. “We have great examples involved in the field,” he said.

Among the signed agreements was one with the Lebanese High Relief Commission (HRC) to carry out a project to cover the food needs of Lebanese families.

Chairman of Lebanon’s High Relief Commission Maj. Gen. Mohammed Khair told Arab News that the agreement targets distributing 10,000 food rations to orphans, widows and destitute families in the poorest and most disadvantaged areas in Lebanon. “This project is encouraging and gives hope to people,” he said.

Khair said that there are 100,000 people in need in Bab Al-Tabbaneh district alone, pledging to commit to transparency during the implementation of the project. “It is not a question of sectarian balance; we are focused on those who are most in need,” he said.

The signed agreements include one for repairing, equipping, and operating the Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz Center for Dialysis at the Makassed General Hospital, an agreement with the UNHCR worth $5 million to implement a project for assisting the most affected Syrian families for six months, an agreement to support Souboul Assalam Association in Akkar (northern Lebanon), an agreement with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to implement a project worth $3.8 million to cover the needs of Syrian families that are below the poverty line for a year, and an agreement with UNRWA to cover the medical needs and treatment of cancer and multiple sclerosis in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.

UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl said: “The challenge facing UNRWA after the reduction of its budget is maintaining the operation of its 715 schools in the Middle East.”

“Saudi Arabia is a key partner for us, and owing to its help, we will be able to help cancer and multiple sclerosis patients,” he said.