We’re renewing operations for success in 2023 Hajj, Umrah exercise, says Abdulmunaf
Alhaji Faisal Abdulmunaf is the Managing Director, Azman Air. In this interview with MURTALA ADEWALE, he spoke on the airline’s debut experience in airlifting pilgrims for the 2022 Hajj and its preparation for 2023 Umrah and Hajj.
Azman made her debut during the 2022 Hajj operations. How was the experience being one of the few domestic carriers that conveyed conventional pilgrims to Saudi Arabia?
It was wonderful though with a lot of challenges. But, overall, we give glory to almighty Allah for the opportunity to overcome the difficulties. The 2022 Hajj operation was our maiden edition and the first time Azman would join the league of carriers to convey the conventional pilgrims from Nigeria to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to perform the rituals.
However, that is not to say we are strangers to the route. Before now, Azman air has been fully routing Kano-Jidda, transporting non-conventional passengers for lesser hajj (Umrah). In fact, we commenced that operation in 2017. The Ramadan of 2022 was another recent experience. We are the only indigenous airline that airlifted the largest Umrah passengers from Nigeria to the holy land.
How successful was the conduct of the exercise?
Azman was designated with passenger allocation from 16 states and the Nigerian Armed Forces Pilgrims. Kano had 1,625; Kaduna 2,489; Yobe 859; Ekiti 132; Ondo 246; Ogun 103; Armed Forces 322 and Lagos 400. We also had a combination of pilgrims from South-South and Southeast, which comprises states like Abia 37, Anambra 28, Bayelsa 60, Cross-River 50, Delta 44, Ebonyi 50, Enugu 29, Imo 17 and Rivers 20. Putting all these figures together, Azman airlifted 6,512 pilgrims among the conventional passengers to Saudi Arabia for this year’s hajj.
How ready was Azman for the exercise and what were the major hiccups during the operation?
Operation wise, Azman was prepared for the hajj exercise even before the outbreak of COVID-19, unfortunately that 2020 hajj could not hold. We intended to deploy two wide-body aircrafts for that exercise – the AA 600 Series. That was why Azman was able to commence Umrah operations immediately after the Saudi authorities lifted the embargo because the plan had been perfected. We actually envisaged possible challenges at the outset.
When you look at the period Saudi Arabia announced the intention to allow international pilgrims to perform 2022 hajj, it was quite short, and participating countries like Nigeria were not certain what the allocation will look like. That essentially affected the entire operations including the aviation sector.
Another major setback that bedeviled the aviation sector during the exercise was the challenge of aviation fuel. It was really difficult and terrible to the extent that we often had to wait for days before we can refill. You would not want to have a repeat of that experience honestly. Now, on the issue of capacity, we know and the authorities are also aware that the operational trust of Azman is not in doubt.
The Kano pilgrims’ board had initially rejected Azman and demanded for another airline to airlift their pilgrims. Could you give insight into what transpired?
As I said earlier, our major challenge, which is quite normal, was the trust burden; especially being the first time Azman was enlisted among other carriers. So, the anxiety was at its peak. We are not surprised because we know it is human nature to harbour doubt.
On the other hand, Kano state sought permission to change their allocation from Azman air to another carrier. That, of course, generated a lot of discomfort and administrative bottlenecks for NAHCON. And that was not unconnected to the reason about 700 pilgrims unfortunately could not meet up for the exercise. That number is huge. However, when the operations started, the narrative changed. The pettiness on the part of some stakeholders around capacity later shifted to other conventional matters.
In fact, because we are pretty sure about our capacity; we sought permission to convey additional passengers of non-conventional pilgrims apart from the 6,504 official allocations. Luckily, NAHCON granted the permit.
So, if some states could go as far as petitioning NAHCON, saying Azman lacked the capacity, it was not unexpected. Though, we understand that some of these issues are politically motivated. It is so disappointing that pilgrims had to bear the brunt.
Our capacity and credibility were put to test and at best, casted doubt on our strength in the face of the larger public. Amidst all the public trials, Azman has remained focused and has forged ahead with the enormous task. At that point, we could not afford to disappoint our international passengers who had paid for our service already. That was actually what led to the failure of the Kano pilgrims board to leave behind some of their intended pilgrims in Nigeria.
However, it is important to note that Azman was not responsible for the failure of about 700 Kano passengers who could not make it to Saudi Arabia for hajj 2022. People should understand from all the narration that it was as a result of unfair treatment and outright rejection of Azman by Kano state government.
Although Kano almost succeeded because NAHCON actually replaced Azman and allocated the Saudi based Flynas to convey Kano pilgrims, but because of the stretch of time, Flynas could not make it and we were later contacted for the operations and at that period, it was almost impossible to convey everybody.
Considering the entire experience, what have you learned ahead of the 2023 operations?
2022 was a successful operation except for the hiccups in Kano. We regretted that though the state pilgrims board caused that misfortune, the unfortunate incident could have been prevented if the board had allowed us to kick-start the airlift as scheduled. In fact, another sabotage we had in Kano was how we were frustrated when we finally resumed operation in Kano. After a successful airlift of 400 pilgrims’ first batch, our aircraft was held redundant when we returned for the second batch. For over 15 hours, we were left waiting for Kano pilgrims.
Going forward what should we expect from Azman in the 2023 Hajj?
I have the conviction that the 2023 operation will not witness the kind of experiences we had in 2022. Already, Saudi Arabia has approved full allocation of 95,000 to Nigeria and activities have started with the bilateral engagement and pre-hajj agreement between NAHCON and Saudi agencies. This is a welcome development. Proper preparation will prevent poor performance like the saying goes.
For us, we have learnt from the maiden edition and I want to believe other stakeholders also did. We have resolved to work on the weaknesses, redouble energy and build on our strength. By the special grace of God, 2023 operations would be all round success and we are already perfecting strategies towards that. If we are not rated the best in the 2023 exercise, there would be no cause to lament.
Azman Air now understands the game better and we are ready for practical improvement. We have sent our wide-body aircraft for C-Check abroad and preparation has reached top gear to acquire another wide-body aircraft before next Ramadan.
So with two aircraft, we are doubling our capacity to serve better and never again will there be repetition of our previous mistakes.