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Destination Mecca
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 04 - 11 - 2010

Egyptian airports are busy sending dozens of daily flights to Saudi Arabia to transport some 90,000 Egyptian pilgrims to the holy lands in the kingdom. Amirah Ibrahim reports
As in previous years, a huge, modern tent has been erected in front of the arrival hall at Cairo International to receive pilgrims. The 1,200 square metre tent accommodates more than 1,000 pilgrims. "By next year's pilgrimage season, a permanent terminal should have been constructed, allocated for hajj and omra flights throughout the year," Hassan Rashed, head of Cairo International Airport, said. "The new LE132 million terminal covers 16,000 square metres, and will add 1.2 million passengers per annum to the airport's capacity," Rashed added. "It includes six gates -- four for departure and two for arrivals. Construction work at the hajj terminal is due to end by the end of June. But it will act also as a substitute terminal to serve seasonal peak traffic during summer vacation."
All hajj flights run by both Saudi Airlines and EgyptAir are operating for the first time from the same terminal building, TB1. EgyptAir operates all its fleet from the new TB3, except for the hajj flights, while Saudi Airlines operates from TB2. Four months ago, Cairo International management moved all airlines from TB2 to TB1 to start renovation and upgrade TB2. "We have allocated Hall 1 for EgyptAir while Saudi Airlines operates from Hall 2," Rashed said.
On Sunday, Aviation Minister Ahmed Shafiq and Higher Education Minister Hani Hilal paid a visit to the hajj tent and toured airport facilities to inspect preparations and arrangements made to handle the transport of Egyptian pilgrims.
"The government has adopted a number of procedures within a comprehensive plan to ensure that Egyptian pilgrims will enjoy a safe and comfortable hajj," stated Hilal who is heading the official Egyptian government delegation responsible for looking after the thousands of Egyptian pilgrims this year. "We have worked hard to study problems and difficulties which arose during the last three years. We came out with a vision on how to provide better services and avoid the mistakes of the past," Hilal said, adding that each group of pilgrims will be accompanied by two scholars to educate pilgrims on hajj rituals and two security officers to handle accommodation and transfers in Mecca and Medina.
The official hajj delegation consists of four groups of pilgrims; the biggest is organised by the Interior Ministry which consists of the majority of Egyptian pilgrims ( Al-Quraa ). It also includes hajj trips organised by social associations, tourism agencies and medical teams.
Hilal toured the departure hall and met with pilgrims to ask how comfortable they were while waiting for their flights. "It is highly recommended that pilgrims should not go to Mina, particularly the elderly, and to let others perform the rituals on their behalf. They also shouldn't take their baggage to Arafa and Mina. According to Saudi rules, each pilgrim may occupy only 90cm which means there will be no place for extra baggage."
EgyptAir Chairman Alaa Ashour told Al-Ahram Weekly that the carrier was operating more than 20 flights daily to Saudi Arabia's Jeddah and Medina airports. Saudi Airlines announced it would not operate additional flights from Egyptian cities during the hajj, which means that the national carrier stands to benefit from the pilgrimage business this year.
"We are set to operate 598 flights between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, 298 flights to fly pilgrims to Saudi Arabia and 300 flights to return them to Egypt," explained Ashour. The last pilgrimage plane is set to depart Cairo Airport on 10 November.
Last year and due to the spread of H1N1, the government imposed restrictions on the pilgrimage that limited the number of Egyptian pilgrims. The number of pilgrims flown by the national carrier jumped from 73,000 last year to 81,000 this year, including pilgrims arriving from African destinations. "We will be carrying pilgrims from West Africa aboard 25 flights from Conakry and nine flights from Accra. This year and due to restrictions on marine transportation, we also added more capacity to take in passengers who used to travel by ferryboat, a figure estimated at 3,500 passengers," Ashour added.
Return flights are scheduled to begin on 20 November and end on 7 December. However, and according to Ashour, return flights pose a big challenge. "Egyptian pilgrims have certain habits that cause problems for them and us. They are addicted to bringing all their stuff while travelling. We cannot overload the fleet with the weight they bring on board. It is against the safety of flying." Ashour warned that this year the carrier would not permit mega baggage on its planes, not even if extra fees are paid. "Each pilgrim is permitted 20kg, five of which would be permitted for Zamzam water bottles."
National carrier EgyptAir has been in pilgrimage preparation mode for months. According to Ashour, the carrier has sent a highly qualified team consisting of 450 employees to Jeddah and Medina to map out the situation and make the required arrangements to ensure a comfortable pilgrimage season. Egyptian pilgrims will be allocated a separate hall in Hajj City at Jeddah Airport.
To reduce potential complications, Saudi Airlines and EgyptAir suspended bookings to Jeddah and Medina for passengers who did not possess hajj entry visas. Passengers are not allowed into the pilgrims' village at Jeddah's King Abdel-Aziz Airport unless they have bookings for the same day.

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