Contrary to the initial agreement, Nigerian Airlines are requesting more spaces ahead of the 2023 airlift of pilgrims to Saudi Arabia starting on May 21.
Criticizing the current bilateral arrangement, the airlines noted that the current agreement with other nations, including Nigeria, where a Saudi-based airline will be given a 50% allocation of pilgrims, does not support the expansion of local carriers.
However, other analysts argued that despite Nigerian airlines’ disputed capacity claim and the fact that some of them had trouble completing deliveries in prior years, the domestic carriers had a right to demand a fair bargain.
New Telegraph reports that six Nigerian carriers taking part in the airlift are expected to carry 60% of the pilgrims, with a Saudi airline named FlyNas carrying 40% of them.
This is consistent with the Saudi Arabian government’s current quota system, which grants Saudi Designated Carriers (not just Flynas) the authority to airlift 50% of Hajj traffic from any country making the pilgrimage.
Even though the arrangement predates the current and recent NAHCON leadership, it has continued to stir up controversy in the aviation industry, with stakeholders questioning the deal and demanding equal treatment for all participating carriers.
Apart from FlyNas, the six Nigerian carriers selected for the airlift include Air Peace, Azman Air, Max Air, Aero Contractors, Arik Air, and ValueJet.
According to the gradual implementation that began in 2015, the Nigerian government through the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) was required to hand over 50% of the pilgrims’ airlift to a Saudi carrier in accordance with the Saudi Royal Decree.
Recall that in February 2015, in Jeddah, the Saudi General Authority on Civil Aviation (GACA) and the Saudi Ministry of Hajj met bilaterally with the Nigerian Ministry of Aviation, the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), NAHCON Airlines, and the Saudi General Authority on Civil Aviation.
In addition to other provisions, the Bilateral Air Service Agreement (BASA) inked called for Nigeria’s progressive compliance with the Saudi ruling.
It was agreed at the time that Nigeria would yield 25% of its pilgrims under the government quota in 2015, 35% in 2016, 45% in 2017, and ultimately 50% in 2018.
It was discovered that Nigeria has dragged this out in order to allow its airlines a chance to take advantage of the airlift.
Although the 50 per cent quota should have gone into effect as early as 2019, it was reliably reported that the current NAHCON leadership was able to examine the 40 per cent agreement.
According to this, out of the 95,000 pilgrims planned to attend the hajj in 2023, 40% (or 38,000 pilgrims) would be flown by FlyNas, while the other 57,000 will be carried by the six Nigerian airlines that are participating.
However, out of the 95,000, the tour operators have 20,000 slots available, and as some private operators also use other scheduled aircraft to Saudi Arabia, the actual number of pilgrims flying on the designated carriers may be smaller.
We agreed to a 40:60 split, with 40% going to Saudi Airlines and 60% going to Nigerian Airlines, a source who talked with our journalist said. However, based on the current bilateral agreement, it ought to have been split 50:50 at this point.
“The last time we went to sign an agreement, we were able to bid for 60:40. All Nigerian carriers will have 60 per cent while Saudi registered airline, FlyNas, will have 40 per cent. We tried to review it to 30, and 35 but the Saudis resisted. You know it was supposed to be a gradual implementation.
“For other countries; Pakistan, Iran, Bangladesh, Malaysia, it is 50:50. We tried to get 60 per cent to support the growth of the aviation sector as more and more people are investing in the aviation industry.”
When contacted, a spokesperson with NAHCON, Alhaji Mousa Ubandawaki confirmed that the NAHCON leadership pleaded for more time before the 50:50 quota would take effect while reiterating that the agreement predated the present and the immediate past leadership of the commission.
Some experts in the aviation industry believe the deal is not fair to Nigeria with Saudi Arabia reaping more from it.
They argued that while Saudi authorities could justify taking 50 per cent slots in some countries that lacked capacity among other constraints, this could not be the same in Nigeria as many airlines, despite numerous homegrown challenges, were pushing to give their best for the best domestic and international flights.
They said with more support from the government and fair deals from other countries, the Nigerian airlines could change the tide for the better, generate more revenue, pay taxes, and provide job opportunities.
The Director of Research and Corporate Travels, at Zenith Travels, Mr Olumide Ohunayo said the 40 per cent deal for the Saudi carrier still needs to be reviewed.
He said, “We have been on this for the past five years. If I can recall, I think this is not fair to Nigeria. Countries like Pakistan, and Egypt which also have high numbers of pilgrims are airlifted by their airlines.
“So why will Nigeria be subjected to that when we also pay 80 dollars per passenger to the authorities there?
“I think the government needs to step in. It is not about religion now; it is about the business aspect of the trip. Is FlyNas carrying our pilgrims free? If it is not free, then they should do their normal flight or come to a Nigerian investor.
“Using the law to take away 40 per cent of our pilgrims is not right. It shouldn’t be by quota. Why are they taking 40 per cent by fiat?”
He stressed the need for all stakeholders to come to a roundtable to “readjust” the quota system. Also, an aviation analyst, Group Capt John Ojikutu who raised the issue in 2018 insisted that the 40 per cent is still a bad deal for Nigeria.
“Why would five Nigerian airlines be vying for 50% of the passengers to Saudi when just one Saudi airline will be taking the other 50% or 40%? There is still more to what is being said than what we are hearing. I still don’t get it.”
‘We’ve to respect bilateral agreements
But another hajj stakeholder, Alhaji Bello Salihu said as long as it is a bilateral agreement, Nigeria has to respect it since it has gone through the process of negotiation.
Salihu, who is the Managing Director, Butake Resources Limited, a ground handling company based in Kaduna and former staff of the defunct Nigeria Airways, said stakeholders must always be carried along when signing BASA with another country to ensure it is not one-sided.
“If it applies to other countries, do we have an option as a country? This is an issue of BASA. When I was in the commercial department of Nigeria Airways, there was an in-house committee that was constituted where all departments in Nigeria Airways including engineering would be involved to take a formal stand.
“We have the capacity. Air Peace has wide-bodied aircraft. Azman has Airbus, Max Air has a 747. We have the capacity.”
Chief Executive Officer of Aero Contractors, Capt Ado Sanusi noted that Nigeria did not consider the business side of hajj operation while signing the agreement. He, however, called for a review of the agreement.
‘Capacity not enough, passengers suffer’
Speaking about the capacity of the local airlines, an economic analyst in Abuja, Dauda Jibril, said the hajj operation is not just about capacity saying there are other variables.
“I must say that Nigerian airlines have to raise their capacity and be more organized. I have figures of various airlines that left pilgrims stranded last year, including Skypower and Azman. Maybe when the Nigerian government and the Saudi authorities see improvement in local capacity, we can better renegotiate the quota.
“The Saudi airlines at times, will finish their quota and still help out with some for the local airlines, so I don’t see it as a thing of competition but that of quality finishing,” Jibril said.
Citing previous poor services by the local airlines, the analyst referred to the Executive Secretary of the Kano State Pilgrims Welfare Board, Alhaji Mohammed Abba Danbatta, who in 2022, held a briefing accusing an airline of “lacking the capacity to manage the conveyance of pilgrims to Saudi Arabia.”
Danbatta, who lodged a formal complaint with NAHCON, said Kano had over 2, 000 pilgrims but the airline airlifted only 900 pilgrims.
“We summoned over 400 pilgrims for screening at the camp, and they were left stranded for over 24 hours. We intimated NAHCON about the development, only (for them) to inform us that Azman would no longer airlift Kano passengers. We are told that Saudi Air, FlyNas, has been assigned to Kano,” he said.
However, the Chairman of Skypower Express Airline, Capt Mohammed Joji, said it is a lie to say Nigerian carriers don’t have capacity. He said FlyNas sees the Nigerian route as a profitable venture during hajj operations because of the high airfares.
According to him, by the time the airfare is reduced and a level playing field is created for all carriers, the business would be less lucrative.
“The question I always ask them is, in every country where pilgrims go to the hajj, how many millions of passengers would they carry?” he asked.
Another airline operator said, “It is not a question of capacity. It is all about encouraging your own. The FlyNas you are talking about doesn’t have a single 747 aircraft in its fleet yet leased from the sister airlines for hajj operations. If you observe, Lion Air of Indonesia has been a major partner of FlyNas.”
Pilgrim to pay N826, 000 above
While NAHCON has fixed about N3m per pilgrim as the total hajj fare for 2023, the airfare component, it was gathered, is between $1,780 (N826,810 at 464.5 exchange rate) to $1, 950 (N898,000) for the North and South respectively.
Going by the agreement ceding 40% or 38,000 pilgrims to FlyNas, it means the airline alone might be raking in about $74,100,000 (N34.1bn) from the airlift while all the Nigerian carriers would make $111,150,000 (N51. 1bn).
However, aviation analysts said more should have been done to review the quota and give a level playing field for all participating airlines.