Now, let’s do a little projective analysis on these vital areas of hajj operations.
Transportation of Pilgrims within Saudi Arabia
The Car Syndicate services will comes with a new system of transporting pilgrims that tally with the 6 feet social distance – the new normal. Something like one passenger seat space between two pilgrims
Pilgrims buses may not be allowed to carry more than 24 pilgrims instead of 48 pilgrims per bus. This measure will increase the number of buses to be used by each country and the number of round trips. An increase in the number of buses and trips also mean an additional cost.
Saudi Car syndicates services are responsible for transporting pilgrims from Madina to Makkah or in reverse order. Transporting pilgrims from Makkah to Mina, Muzdallifah and Arafat and back to Makkah. The implication of this policy may mean additional cost because of an increase in the number of buses and the number of trips.
Airlift of Pilgrims
Before I proceed, one of the airlines announced last week that they will adopt a new sitting arrangement to allow one seat distance between two people. Boeing 747 aircraft can airlift over 500 pilgrims during hajj airlift. It is my prayer and hopes that the social distance measure will not compel the aviation industry to adopt a system that will compel 550 capacity aircraft to accommodate 300 or 350 pilgrims per flight.
For example, Emirates Airline has started to conduct Rapid COVID-19 Tests for Boarding Passengers – the first airline to roll out such services. The analysis is a blood test with results within 10 minutes. It says its testing could also be used to provide confirmation for Emirates passengers travelling to countries that require COVID-19 test certificates. The testing accompanies other changes on Emirates. Passengers are now required to wear masks throughout boarding and flight. Gone are in-flight magazines, and carry-on luggage isn’t permitted – only small items like handbags and briefcases.
The Saudi Arabia General Authority of Civil Aviation may likely fashion out a similar policy for hajj and Umrah pilgrimage, I am leaving the potential cost and operational implications of this ‘projection’ to the experts.
More importantly, It has been predicted that the global airline industry will burn through $61bn of their cash reserves during the second quarter of this year, according to the latest forecast from its trade body. IATA. Air carriers are facing an “enormous cash problem” and face a net loss of $39bn in the three months to the end of June. IATA also said that the pandemic would slash airline revenues by $250bn this year. The Hajj airline industry will not be immune to this negative backslash.
Now, will the hajj or Umrah airfare remains the same in the face of the global downturn?
Let’s wait and hear.
Pilgrims spend an average of 5-10 days in Madina and 25- 30 days in their accommodation in Saudi Arabia. 4 or 5 pilgrims are usually housed in a room during hajj exercise. With this arrangement, it is practically difficult to maintain social distance and Saudi Arabia may issue new accommodation guideline with emphasis on reducing the number of pilgrims in a room to 2 or a maximum of 3 pilgrims.
This measure will affect hajj participating countries in terms of costs of pilgrims accommodation because each country will need more rooms (by implication more hotels) to accommodate their pilgrims.
This is going to be delicate and challenging. Currently, the space in Mina is not enough to accommodate 1.2 million pilgrims going by the standard tent of accommodating 10 or fewer pilgrims per tent. It is still unclear the kind of model that can be adopted in Mina if pilgrims are subjected to the social distance rule in Mina, Muzdalifa and Arafat this year.
The only alternative might be for pilgrims to sidestep mina (provided it didn’t void the hajj rites) and allow pilgrims to be transported from their accommodation in Makkah to the Arafat in a country by country arrangement. Pilgrims may no longer stay in Muzdalifa rather they will be allowed to pray Maghrib and Isha prayer and proceed to Jamrat. This may also come with a country by country times table arrangement.
Coronavirus seems to have set us a challenge to test our courage and willingness to change; at this moment, there is no point in pretending that nothing has happened or in saying that we are not yet ready. The challenge will not wait. We have enough time to decide whether or not to accept the reality that coronavirus has altered hajj operational structure.
Finally and whether there is will be hajj in 2020 or 2021, It is my advice that we should be prepared to align with new hajj policies and kick start a process of having a different template for hajj operations. There should be a flexible back up plan that can be reconfigured to suit the new reality of hajj and Umrah industry.