The 2019 Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia has come and gone but some intending pilgrims who were denied the opportunity to perform the programme after they had booked their flights are still nursing their wounds. Chika Otuchikere writes
600 intending pilgrims of the recently concluded 2019 Hajj exercise were prevented from participating in the Moslem spiritual exercise due to a policy of one of the airlines scheduled to airlift them to the Holy land in Saudi Arabia.
Investigation revealed that the pilgrims drawn from all over the country were expected to board their flights from both the Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos and the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja after they had bought the airlines’ return ticket to Saudi Arabia.
However, one of the airlines, the Emirates airline, disappointed 600 of the intending pilgrims after they had bought their return tickets for between N550, 000 and N600, 000 on the grounds that they delayed in procuring their visa and so could not meet their flight schedule.
The affected passengers became stranded on arrival at the two airports after the Emirates Airline insisted that they must buy another ticket at the same amount they bought the earlier one before they could be airlifted or forfeit performing the pilgrimage.
According to sources, there was a three weeks delay in transferring the foreign exchange required to process the visa for the intending Hajj pilgrims.
Education Tell learnt that the position of the Emirates airline was based on their policy of “No Rebooking No Refund. This, they airline explained, implied that a passenger who missed his flight for any reason not caused by the airline would not have a refund and must buy another ticket if he still wants to travel.
According to one of the victims of the action of the airline, who pleaded anonymity on the grounds that he was a civil servant, they approached the airline to allow the affected intending pilgrims to board their aircraft after they may have been fined for the delay in the visa, the Emirates officials insisted that their policy was that the pilgrims had to pay the full amount for another ticket or forfeit the flight.
The affected victims were said to have pleaded with the Emirates Airline to tamper justice with mercy by invoking another policy recognized by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) called “No-shoe changes” which is a fine of between $100 and $150 before each affected passengers could be rescheduled. This plea fell on deaf ears.
Rather than the Emirates Airline adopting this ‘soft-landing ’ approach to enable the intending Hajj passengers to participate in the exercise, according to some of the aggrieved passengers, the airline insisted on receiving a full ticket fees before they would airlift them.
The decision of the airline did not go down well with the pilgrims many of whom, it was gathered, had endured several years of saving their hard earned money just so that they could participate in the Hajj exercise even once in their life time.
One of the affected intending pilgrim explained the situation to this reporter. He said the Emirates Airline did not show any sign of friendliness to the Hajj participants especially considering that the airline has been benefitting from the exercise over the years and so, was not justified to deny the intending pilgrims the privilege to participate in the exercise over a policy which could have been reviewed.
His words; “Whatever, the aviation rule is all about, there should be friendliness in the airline policy. The Hajj exercise is one of the five pillars of Islam which every Moslem must perform once in a lifetime. Most people save for many years to be able to perform the Hajj. It’s not just a tourism trip, it’s a spiritual exercise of great importance.
“The airline did not give any consideration just like other airlines did and charged an extra $100 and $150. Even the money is like a penalty which should not really be because it’s not the passengers that caused the delay in transferring the foreign exchange. N600, 000 ticket for a four-hiur journey and not refundable is just too harsh”.
Another affected passenger heaped the blame on the federal government which allows other countries’ airlines to come into Nigeria and take advantage of its citizens. According to the passenger, the federal government is very weak with regards to the regulation of these airlines.
“There is a bi-lateral agreement between these foreign airlines and the federal government. This agreement allows the Emirates Airline to fly one aircraft a day but they are flying twice a day. They should be more friendly to a country that allows them this kind of freedom.
“This airline uses the money it makes from Nigeria to cover up their losses in other routes they’re losing from. Why should the passengers be forced to pay another money for fresh ticket on the airline because their visa delayed. Because of this some persons were denied going for the Hajj.
“It’s high time the government starts regulating the activities of airlines in Nigeria otherwise, it’s the poor innocent travelers that will suffer it. A highly sensitive trip like this and all airlines earn a lot of money from it, should not be handled in an unfriendly manner. Otherwise any airline that introduces harsh measures should not be allowed to carry Hajj pilgrims,” he said.
The immediate past publicity secretary of the Association of Hajj and Umrah operation (AHOUN) Abuja, Alhaji Abdulrauf Zakari Fagbamila who also commented on the development pointed out that other airlines such as the Ethiopian, Egyptian and Turkish airlines which also airlift Hajj pilgrims charged only $100 dollars for their passengers affected by the visa delay, wondering why Emirate decided to adopt the hardliner.
“Imagine Hajjes that paid airfare between N550, 000 and N600, 000 will have to lose this his money, a saving of probably, four years for the purpose of performing this mandatory trip which comes once in a lifetime just like that on a delay of visa that is not his negligence. This kind of penalty is considered as robbery and it can only happen in Nigeria,” he said.
According to Fagbamila, the federal government should call Emirate Airline to order and direct them to compensate all the intending pilgrims that lost their money as a result of the airline’s policy of No Rebooking and No Refund.
When contacted, the head of the agency handling media for the Emirate Airline, Miss Ijeoma Oseji, said the policy did not target the Hajj pilgrims but that the policy had been on ground and only affected the intending pilgrims due to the delay in procuring visa.
She, however, noted that the federal government and the agencies responsible for foreign exchange should strengthen their operations to prevent situations where intending pilgrims are subjected to delays which could affect their programmes.