Alhaji Muneer Bankole is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Medview Airline, one of the three airlines that airlifted Nigerian pilgrims to Saudi Arabia for this year’s hajj rite exercise. At an interactive session with Journalists in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, he said the airlines have more than enough capacity to airlift all Nigerian pilgrims to Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. SALIFU USMAN was there for leadership.
How did your company fare in the airlifting of Nigerian pilgrims to and fro Saudi Arabia for this year’s hajj?
I thank Almighty Allah for the privilege and opportunity to serve our people by airlifting them to the holy land, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to perform their hajj. It is something that Allah bestowed on us to carry out because if you look at all the resources we have put in till date and health wise, it is only Allah that takes care of them. From the beginning of the exercise to end we will continue to have sleepless night because we keep loading and landing every day, and we operate 24hrs and seven days in a week. We have both the manpower and every other thing required in running the operation in place.
For us as a Nigerian carrier, we always use the beginning of Umrah to close hajj operation because the regulation in Saudi Arabia allow the air carriers selected and approved by the Nigerian government to begin to do the paper work and get all their aircraft satisfied. After the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) might have done their inspection on the aircraft, you still have to go to the Saudi’s authority under the GACA (General Authority on Civil Aviation) to file your papers and to ensure that the aircraft you are bring in for the pilgrims are air worthy. They will look at your papers and grant you FOC (Foreign Operator Certificate). After that you will go for security programmes called SOP. These are safety and security regulations you must abide by and you must apply by having GSA that meet all the requirement in an attempt that you have business to do with somebody representing you, and they will hold you accountable.
All these process have to be done and you need a minimum of six months to run the project. So, you have to look at it from the beginning to closing of hajj and start early enough to meet the requirements if by Allah’s grace you are selected to carry Nigerian pilgrims.
What was the secret of meeting the deadline for airlifting all Nigerian pilgrims to Saudi Arabia this year even before the closure of the Saudi’s airspace?
Like I said earlier, planning was one of the key factors for the success we were able to record. Because the moment we got approval from the government, the next thing to do, for us as airliners, was come to Saudi Arabia to do all the paper work and get our slots and these were done immediately. There was a committee in place with the general civil authority on aviation which comprises the company handling the Madinah and Jeddah Airports, the security authority and the GACA themselves that seat with the airlines and profile the capacity and the number of pilgrims allocated to us. And once we got our number, we were back home to get set for the operation. These are some of the things we come here to do just to ensure everythings are in order and before we get back home, 80 percent of the job have done.
I want to commend the Nigerian government and National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) for ensuring that all the Nigerian pilgrims were conveyed to Madinah this year and that was part of the secret of the success of this year hajj, because it took away the stress of pilgrims travelling by road to Madinah and the dangers involved. It also afford the Nigerian pilgrims opportunity to have significant time to themselves to rest in Madinah and fulfill all their religious rights, ibaada and eased up to Makkah. From Makkah they moved to Muna, Arafat and Mudzelifa and then moved back to Makkah and we started the journey back home. All the stakeholders putting heads together was the secret behind the success of this year’s hajj.
We are now on the journey back home, are there any challenges in handling pilgrims’ luggage?
What we are doing now is that all the processes are being combined and work together. We go to individual pilgrim accommodations with truck to check their baggage there and take away the stress of coming to the airport with bags from them completely. Once we weigh this bag, we give you the weighing card through manifest and take the bags. We manifest the baggage just the way we manifest human beings so that we can take an account of every bag we collect from respective pilgrims. The baggages are equally treated like human beings. We take them to our weighing center, take it through all the processes of screening, seal it and take them to the airport where double screening will be done again for the purpose of safety by the security and then move the baggage to the aircraft. With that, you will find out that we have taken away the stress of pilgrims carrying baggage up and down, pushing them along with truck. Let Nigeria continue to apply this system and the Saudi Arabian authority continue to support the system because we are one of the biggest nations on the hajj and if you look at our strength today we are close to 76, 000 pilgrims. If by the grace of God, which I understand they might reverse our quota to the same old one which is almost 100, 000 for Nigeria. That is huge number and we might probably be number three or four contingent on hajj.
At the beginning of this year’s hajj there was so much noise about rigorous screening of Nigerian pilgrims at the airport and it was like only Nigerians were subjected to this. In term of tracking, how many such cases have you experienced, and do you think Nigerian such punishment?
To be fair, the issue of excess screening of Nigerian pilgrims this year has been quite successful. The excessive security check, I don’t think we should compromise it at all because it is for the sake of the life of the pilgrims, equipment, everybody and the image of our country. Looking at the global events around Saudi Arabia, the application of double screening at the airport applied by the authority is necessary, and the explanation given to us was based on security and nobody would want to change that or compromise it.
How many Nigerian pilgrims do you bring to Saudi Arabia?
We were given 10,000 allocation for Nigeria, and being a scheduled international carried, we carry from Kano, Abuja and Lagos. We equally carried from neighbouring countries. So in a total, the number of pilgrims we brought to the holy land for the 2016 hajj is about 15, 000.
Out the approved quota for Nigeria by the Saudi’s government, how many pilgrims were airlifted by the Nigerian local airlines?
Myself and Max Air run 40, 000 pilgrims in total, out of the 62, 000 pilgrims. Flynas, a Saudi Arabia airline run the remaining numbers.
Do the Nigerian Airlines have the capacity to carry all the pilgrims to Saudi Arabia?
We have more than that capacity. There is no contention about that. Putting our capacity together, we are more than that. It is not even enough for us to carry. Apart from me telling you that the Nigerian airlines have the capacity, what we normally look at is the equipment. For Nigerian carriers, Max Air has about 47, 47 and we have three aircrafts, 74, 77, and 67. They are all flying. So, if you look at the average capacity of air chairs which is 450 and multiply 450 by 5, you will get 2250 per day and if run 2250 per day for 30 days which is a spread of a year, that is more than 70, 000.
Do you want local airlines to carry all the pilgrims?
We are not contesting the business or competing with foreign airlines. You can expose the business to external parties to help the nation because other business activities will contribute to grow the economy. There is no crime about that. But the fact remains that whoever is coming to our country to carry pilgrims should also invest in our local economy just the way I am be compel to contribute to Saudi economic. I am being compelled by the standardisation policy to employ 30% of Saudi’s nationals, sitting in an office in Saudi Arabia, pay money to local rents, follow the municipality balance, paying bank guarantee and so on. We should apply the same in our country, that is what I am saying.
What was the yardstick in allocating quota for the three airlines that conveyed the pilgrims to Saudi and why were you given just 10,000, was it based on your capacity?
It has nothing to do with capacity. There was this project that was put in place that the Saudi authority insisted must have 50% of the quota of the Nigerian pilgrims and it has been a long discussion. It is now left for Nigerian government to seat with the authorities concerned and let the Saudi know that if they are doing that to our country, our people must benefit from the exercise just as the way Medview is been compel to employ Saudis. It is not by my will to employ Saudis. I am been compel to do it because there is standardisation policy that their nationals must make 30% of your workforce. If Nigerian government is compelling any foreign carriers or investors to give 30% of their job to Nigerian nationals that will reduce a lot of problems for us.
So, it was not about capacity because we have it, we are one of the airlines God has blessed to be involved in domestic, regional and international hajj as a chattered. It is not because of comparison with anybody.