The expansion and renovation on the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, has resulted in a boost for the airline industry in Southeast Asia.
Garuda Indonesia and Malaysia Airlines are seeing increased demand for the annual Hajj and Umrah pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia and plan to provide more specialized service to meet the needs of one of the largest gatherings of people in the world.
Saudi Arabia usually limits the number of pilgrims to Mecca by quota based on an agreement among the state members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to some 1.3 million annually for the five-day Hajj. In recent years, the quota for Indonesia and Malaysia has increased substantially after completion of the Grand Mosque’s renovations. The Saudi government this year allowed 221,000 pilgrims from Indonesia, up from 168,000, and 30,200 from Malaysia, compared with 27,900.
The largest Muslim population in the world lives in Indonesia, and its flag carrier, Garuda Indonesia, serves as one of the main airlines for Hajj services. Garuda said that it carried 78,772 Hajj pilgrims in 205 groups in 2016, accounting for some 3.91 percent of its total operating revenue. Revenue did suffer a drop that year due to reduction of ticket price and the Hajj quota.
Garuda, which expects to carry 107,959 Hajj passengers this year, has committed 14 aircraft, consisting of five Boeing 777-300ERs and three 747-400s and six Airbus A330-300s. More than half of the cabin crew comes from the respective embarkation points to serve pilgrims who speak only local dialects.
Garuda added that the annual event has not negatively affected airline operations and performance. “The company’s Hajj airline services had been well planned in a mature manner as part of Garuda Indonesia’s overall operations,” a Garuda spokesperson said.
Malaysia Airlines (MAS) told AIN that Hajj and Umrah flights alone account for about 5 percent of its annual revenue. This year, most of Malaysia’s 30,200 pilgrims have opted to fly with MAS to Saudi Arabia. The airline now uses Airbus A330s and A380s and the Boeing 737 to satisfy Hajj commitments.
Malaysia Airlines announced earlier this year that it plans to establish an independent airline, with its own air operator certificate and management team, to serve primarily the Hajj and Umrah market.
“The progress thus far has been promising and we expect the operations to begin in October 2018,” Malaysia Airlines said.
The airline said it would reconfigure its six A380s from the current 494-seat layout to a high-density 700-seat configuration for the flights. MAS had hoped to sell its A380s due to high operating costs, but it has not managed to find a buyer.