Airlines Mull A380 Hajj Services to Improve Pilgrims’ Travel

London: In a bid to tap the potential business opportunities during the Hajj season, Malaysia Airlines is looking to launch a Hajj service using its surplus large A380 aircraft, reported an Arab daily.

The widely reported plans would involve reconfiguring the current 494-seat layout across three classes on some of its existing super jumbo jets to create a slightly cozier all-economy 700-seat aircraft.

If such plans were to be put in place and prove successful, it could to be a far more cost-effective way to move hundreds of pilgrims at one time in and out of the Kingdom than using smaller planes.

In 2016, 1.3 million Muslims from outside Saudi Arabia traveled to the Kingdom to complete Hajj, with 94 per cent of those arriving in the country by plane, according to government statistics.

According to aviation consultant John Strickland, the Hajj requires the efficient movement of large volumes of people and the A380 is perfect for this with its high seat capacity, and hence low-unit seat costs.

He added that for an airline like Malaysia Airlines with a large Muslim home market, it can find work for most of the year with Umrah pilgrimages driving travel outside of the annual Hajj period itself.

Often pilgrims will travel on chartered flights arranged by tour operators or government agencies flying in and out of Jeddah, taking anything from small 5-seater planes to the 200- or 300-seater aircraft typically used by commercial airlines.

Commercial airlines also lease extra planes to run Hajj-specific services. For example, Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia) leases Boeing 747 and A330 aircraft to run their Hajj services, said Abdulrahman Altayeb, Vice President for corporate communications at Saudi Arabian Airlines.

“Biman Bangladesh Airlines needs to lease wide-body aircraft capable of carrying more than 450 passengers in order to transport around 50,000 pilgrims to and from Saudi Arabia each year,” a spokesperson for the company was quoted as saying by the newspaper.

The cost of travel could potentially be reduced if Malaysia Airlines deploys the A380 for Hajj. The plans could help the airline generate more income from its surplus A380s.

Already, Emirates has said that it will be operating an A380 service to Madinah to meet the increased demand during Hajj.

The Dubai-based airline also said in its August 17 announcement that it would be operating 45 additional flights to Jeddah and 12 additional flights to Madinah using various aircraft during the pilgrimage.

There are, however, some drawbacks with using larger planes such as the A380.

Smaller countries, particularly in Africa, often lack the infrastructure and airports to handle these super-jumbo jets.

While the A380 may make the Hajj travel market a little more competitive, there will remain pockets of opportunities for the smaller players.