LONDON — Every year, some 1.4 million people converge from the four corners of the globe to a spot in western Saudi Arabia to participate in one of the main tenets of Islam. For five days, Hajj pilgrims will trek through the desert, throw stones at a rock pillar symbolizing the devil, drink water from a holy well and, finally, walk seven times round a black silk-swathed square granite building to demonstrate their devotion.

Getting those pilgrims to Mecca – and getting them back home again – requires the world’s greatest annual airlift. And that means business for airlines around the world.

For example, in 2015, Portugal’s Euro-Atlantic Airways positioned one Boeing 777-200ER, five 767-300ERs and 270 staff for two and a half months in Jeddah, and whilethe carrier declined to give the value of the contract or the number of passengers it transported at that time, it is confident that it was a record-breaking agreement.

Euro Atlantic's Boeing 777-200ER moments before landing in Faro. (Credits: Pedro Aragão)
Euro Atlantic’s Boeing 777-200ER moments before landing in Faro. (Credits: Pedro Aragão)

“This Hajj contract was, to date, the biggest ever signed by a national airline, public or privately-owned,” said Tomaz Metello, euro-Atlantic’s chairman and CEO. “In the history of Portuguese civil aviation, this was the largest-ever movement of aircraft and crews.”

The contract, a charter arrangement with Saudi Arabia’s National Air Services, saw euro-Atlantic operating an ‘air bridge’ into Saudi Arabia, flying Muslims from countries as far apart as Nigeria and India.

National Air Services has a complete division – flynas Hajj and umrah (umrah is a secondary Muslim pilgrimage) – devoted to religious tourism. This particular brand of tourism accounts for a remarkable 37% of all inbound air trips to Saudi Arabia. In 2014, flynas Hajj and Umrah arranged more than 250 flights carrying around 40,000 pilgrims.

“Umrah traffic is good business, as passengers tend to plan their trips several months ahead, usually pay well in advance and the aircraft are filled,” commented flynas CEO Paul Byrne.

Travel agents from Muslim countries such as Turkey have been known to approach airlines such as flynas offering to provide anything up to 100,000 passengers a year. Realistically, said Byrne, a good proportion of those were likely to be taken by Turkish Airlines or AtlasJet. Nevertheless, “If you can get the right costs and the right partner agencies, you can do very well.

“We are still actively looking for business like that. If there’s traffic we can carry, we will wet-lease aircraft in and take it.”

For this reason, flynas is continuing its ‘scheduled chartered’ pilgrim flights from Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan and India. These use flights operated by carriers including Malaysia’s AirAsia X and Eaglexpress Air Charter.

Saudia, another Eagleexpress client, is believed to be the world’s largest wet-lessee as it hires in additional capacity to help it cope with the influx of passengers.

Indeed, some airlines have successfully built their business on religious tourism. Eaglexpress, mentioned above, describes itself as ‘a global Umrah/Hajj charter operator’ that can fill Boeing 747-400s with pilgrims on the Jeddah route.

Eaglexpress currently operates a single Boeing 747-400 acquired from Malaysia Airlines, with two more of the type to be added. (Credits: Eric Salard)
Eaglexpress currently operates a single Boeing 747-400 acquired from Malaysia Airlines, with two more of the type to be added. (Credits: Eric Salard)

Once those pilgrims reach Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz International Airport, they are funneled into a dedicated Hajj terminal. When completed in 1981, the 5 million ft² terminal was the world’s largest cable-stayed, fabric-roofed structure – with that structure taking the form of a vast Bedouin tent.

Jeddah's dedicated Hajj terminal. (Credits: UR-SDV via commons)
Jeddah’s dedicated Hajj terminal. (Credits: UR-SDV via commons)

It is unusual in having no walls – natural ventilation and the reflective white Teflon-coated fiberglass ‘tent’ roof keep it relatively cool.