The Olympics of air travel – new policies and technologies are helping facilitate religious Hajj traffic

Advanced flight bookings to airports around the holy city of Mecca ahead of this year’s Hajj have increased from Asia, Europe and Oceania, according to research by travel technology company, Travelport. Bookings from North America are flat on last year and travel from South America and Africa is slightly down on 2018 numbers.

Every year, in excess of one million people from all over the world fly into western Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj, making it one of the largest annual spikes in global air traffic. To manage numbers from overseas, Saudi Arabia sets quotas for countries based on their Muslim population. Local governments and licensed private travel companies then begin allocating places for citizens.

As part of its study, Travelport analysed bookings made through all global distribution systems (GDS) to King Abdulaziz International, Ta’if Regional and Prince Mohammed Bin Abdulaziz International airport, as of 21-Jul-2019, arriving between 09-Jul-2019 and 08-Aug-2019. The company then ran comparable data for last year’s Hajj, so trends could be identified. All data is derived from Travelport’s interpretation of relevant Marketing Information Data Transfer (MIDT) data.

Asia recorded the greatest growth in flight bookings made through GDS to airports around Mecca this year in terms of volume, with bookings up by 11,284 (+5%). On a country level, the greatest growth came from Bangladesh, with bookings up by 13,906 (+171%).

The South Asian country is one of five countries (Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, Malaysia and Tunisia) benefiting from the Mecca Route initiative, a new service offering immigration pre-clearance for pilgrims at their points of embarkation.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) recorded the second highest rise, up 3,981 (+17%); followed by Qatar, up 3,278 (+217%), a country where pilgrims can now register for their Hajj using dedicated ‘electronic gates’. The greatest number of flight bookings made through GDS in Asia were made in India (44,611). Overall, bookings made in Asia represented 64% of total bookings globally.

“In recent years we have seen an increase in efforts to introduce policies and technologies that make the Hajj, which has often been compared to hosting an Olympics Games each year, a more convenient experience for the global Islamic community,” explains Damian Hickey, global vice president and global head of air travel partners at Travelport. “Our analysis suggests that these initiatives may well be having a tangible impact, which is encouraging from a technological standpoint.”

Europe was shown in the analysis to have recorded the second greatest growth in flight booking volume through GDS to airports around Mecca this year, with bookings up by 1,966 (+6%). The greatest growth and greatest volume of bookings were registered in the United Kingdom, which was up by 2,237 (+13%) to 19,798, though this does represent a slowdown in the 47% growth seen in 2018.  The second and third greatest increases in the region were all recorded off low bases from Bosnia and Herzegovina, up 562 (+173%), and Sweden, up 310 (+168%).

Unlike Muslim-majority nations, countries with a minority Muslim population in the West are not subject to the same Hajj quota of 1,000 pilgrims per million of population. Overall bookings made in Europe represented 10% of total bookings globally.

Advanced flight bookings from North America made through GDS to airports around Mecca were flat this year (bookings up by 221; +1%). The country that saw the greatest surge was Canada, with bookings up by 1,362 (+39%). The largest number of bookings were once again made in the United States (15,854).

South America saw a drop in flight bookings through GDS this year, with volume down 27%, albeit off a low base. The country with the most bookings was Brazil (52 bookings). An estimated 200 Brazilians are expected to travel to perform Hajj this year. Overall, bookings made in the Americas represented 6% of total bookings globally.

CHART – Flight schedules into Saudi Arabia peak at this time of the year due to additional service supporting Hajj demandSource: CAPA – Centre for Aviation and OAG

Flight bookings made via GDS to airports around Mecca from Africa were down by 17% this year. This was largely due to a decrease in the number of bookings made in Egypt (-17%). However, the North African country did still record the greatest number of flight bookings through a GDS out of any country globally (49,477).

Morocco experienced the greatest growth in bookings in Africa this year, with volume up by 1,078 (+34%) following a letter from monarch, King Mohammed VI, urging the nation’s pilgrims to positively represent the country at Hajj this year. Notable increases were also seen in Niger (bookings up 870; +110%), South Africa (bookings up 674; +33%) and Nigeria (bookings up 520; +21%). Overall, bookings made in Africa represented 20% of total bookings globally.

Flight bookings made through GDS to airports around Mecca from Oceania were up 1,705 (+204%) this year. The rise can be attributed to a jump in bookings from Australia, up 238% to 2,344, from 1,650 in the previous year, while at least 200 pilgrims have been invited to participate in Hajj from New Zealand. Overall, bookings made in Oceania represented less than 1% of total bookings globally.

The findings offer an interesting overview of the religious traffic, but it reflects only bookings made through GDS. Additional booking will have been made directly with airlines, which may or may not also have a GDS presence and during Hajj a large number of charter flights are added to manage dramatic increases in demand for trips to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and these are not recorded through GDS as bookings are made directly with associated airlines.