About 815 pilgrims to this year’s Hajj who travelled through various private tour operators have been left stranded for days by SkyPower Aviation in Saudi Arabia before they were eventually airlifted to Nigeria.
The pilgrims, who came to perform hajj through different private tour operators said they were left stranded in Makkah for days and also at King Abdulaziz International Airport, Jeddah.
They also said they spent 28 days instead of 18 as promised because the airline failed to airlift them back to Nigeria.
One of the pilgrims, Alhaji Abdulsamad, who paid through Murna travels the National Media Team, Thursday at the airport said that ” We paid N1.3 million with the promise that we will spend only 18 days, today we have spent 28 days and here we are without knowing our fate.”
He said they were brought to Saudi Arabia by Skypower Aviation using an Air Peace aircraft.
”After going through a lot in Makkah, we were brought to the Airport with a promise that we will be airborne on Wednesday evening, yet we are still here,” he said.
Another pilgrim, who simply identified herself as Hajiya Ramatu said they were earlier given a boarding pass bearing Skypower Aviation in Makkah.
“They then retrieved it and issued another boarding pass belonging to another airline to us when we arrived at the Airport.
‘We started noticing dishonesty when they asked us to return the boarding pass they gave us in Makkah and later issued a different boarding pass to us.
“The date of departure written on the ticket is on 28th August while the boarding pass was given to us on the 29th of August. Then I knew instantly that we are in for a ride,” she said.
The pilgrim said officials of the airline tried to take them out of the Airport again to a Hotel in Jeddah but many of them refused, insisting that they must be transported back home as promised, while others who agreed with them were taken to a hotel in Jeddah.
Narrating her ordeal, another Pilgrim who declined to be named said she lives in Adamawa state but decided to pay through a private tour operator named portfolio Travels in Kano.
She said their problem started right from Nigeria after they were left for days before they were airlifted to Saudi Arabia.
Two other pilgrims, who spoke along similar lines said they were humiliated even in Makkah because of the failure of their handlers to evacuate them from the hotels they were staying.
They said key facilities such as water and electricity were cut off in their accommodation in Makkah after they overstayed.
They added that service providers booked for only 18 days while they were there for about 28 days.
Operating against NAHCON caution
Investigations by Our Correspondent shows that the plight of the 275 pilgrims is similar to those of about 540 pilgrims who earlier went through similar ordeals before being airlifted back to Nigeria by Skypower airline.
Findings by newspaper reveal that the pilgrims who were expected to travel back home onboard “Jordan Air” but known as “Sky Prime Aviation” in Saudi Arabia in flight numbers 4515, 4521 and 4525 were evacuated from their hotels in Makkah and taken to four various hotels in Jeddah instead of the airport as promised.
While some were lodged in Trident Hotel, others with a higher class of travel package were lodged in Roshan Alazhar and Beyab Alhamra hotels for days.
Some of them who spoke to us said they paid their fare through Rawdah Travel and Tours Kano.
A document we sighted also indicates that the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON), had before the commencement of airlift for this year’s Hajj warned intending pilgrims against using unlicensed tour operators or airlines.
The commission was said to have directed all licensed tour operators to either use any of the three airlines approved for use during the Hajj this year, which are Max, Medview and Flynas airlines or any other airline that has a regular schedule of flying into or out of Saudi Arabia.
Such airlines include but not limited to Emirates, Ethiopian, Egypt or Turkish Airlines.
”Despite these requirements, some Nigerians who felt they have the requisite funds to charter an aircraft even though such airlines do not run regular schedules between Nigeria and Saudi Arabia chose to ignore the requirement, ” said a source in NAHCON who declined to be named because he had no permission to speak to the media on the matter.
Recall that it was widely reported that nearly 500 Nigerians were stranded in Kano and could not make it to Saudi Arabia for this year’s Hajj because the airline chartered to ferry them could not get the go-ahead of Saudi authorities to arrive and land in any of the two airports in Jeddah and Madinah used for Hajj pilgrims.
Further Investigations shows Skypower airline was supposed to airlift the abandoned Kano private pilgrims during the Airlift of Pilgrims from Nigeria to Saudi Arabia.
Technical problem cause of delay
The representative of Skypower Express Airways in Jeddah, one Alhaji Abubakar told journalists that they failed to ferry their passengers due to a “technical problem”.
Although he did not explain in detail the nature of the technical problem, Alhaji Abubakar told reporters that the problem has to do with a lack of fuel.
He said they were able to source for the fuel and the pilgrims may be airlifted any moment.
Mr Abubakar could also not respond to our question as to whether other airlines ferrying pilgrims to Nigeria have the same ‘technical problem of fuel scarcity’
We didn’t abandon pilgrims – Skypower
The Managing Director of Skypower, Captain Mohammed Joji has denied abandoning pilgrims in Saudi Arabia.
Captain Mohammed Joji, while reacting to the news on Saturday, said the company never abandoned any passenger in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and they have only one last flight from Jeddah to Kano on Tuesday.
“We never abandon any passenger in KSA and we have only one flight remaining to Kano Nigeria on Tuesday, which is the last flight to Nigeria.
“All Hajj carriers have similar different kind of operational delay and challenges,” he insisted.
According to the MD, the report received from their representative in Jedda, indicated that Skypower aircraft coming from Lagos to Jeddah to pick the passengers as scheduled on 28/8/19 was scheduled to arrive Jeddah by 23:35, ” but unfortunately due to fuel situation, it was delayed and the aircraft arrived Jeddah and picked the 274 passengers to Kano.”
He wondered why there were no media reports of other airlines who allegedly had similar operational challenges.
He said according to report available to him, ” Flynas has similar or even worse operational reason and took two aircraft load of over 1,000 passengers to the hotel for two days, but was not reported.
“Another delay occurred again where same Abuja passengers were taken to the hotel by the same carrier and airlifted today(Saturday), and it was not reported.”
Our efforts to reach the cooperate communication of Flynas to respond to the allegations made by the MD of Skypower proved abortive. However, a senior airport official who spoke to us on the condition of anonymity said that, “it is mischievous for anyone to said Flynas abandoned pilgrims at any point throughout this return journey”
“He told us that “currently Flynas is returning over 210, 000 hajj 2019 pilgrims from 17 different countries and it is only once that one of its aircraft developed a technical problem after all the pilgrims have been boarded”.
“The pilot signal that the aircraft cannot proceed on the journey and all the pilgrims were asked to disembark. We provide another aircraft the next day and the other set of pilgrims that were earlier scheduled and cancelled due to the challenge were airlifted back home”
“I am surprised that you are telling me that an aviation industry player is comparing a situation where pilgrims were brought to the airport even though they are not sure of aircraft and a case of pilgrims that have boarded an aircraft and it developed a technical problem. As I am talking to you, that aircraft is still not back on air”
“Let me narrate what happened. Sokoto state pilgrims have boarded and are about to depart when the aircraft developed a technical problem. By then, FCT pilgrims are already on their way to the airport because there is an aircraft that has departed from Nigeria that is meant to ferry the FCT pilgrims. It is now resolved that the aircraft coming back from Nigeria that was initially schedule for FCT be allocate to the Sokoto pilgrims that were disembarked. Then another aircraft was arranged for the FCT pilgrims the next day.
He went further to dispute the issue of scarcity of aviation fuel because according to him “we have been refuelling in Nigeria. We have refuelled in Kano and Lagos and even right now, one of flynas aircraft is in Kano refuelling and will soon be on air back to the Country.