In this two-part series, Layoverhub writers Omer Alamin and Nick McGowan will look at the history of the Hajj, and modern aviation’s role in one of the largest annual movements of people in the world.

The Hajj is the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the holiest site in Islam, conducted by Muslims from countries around the world. Under the Islamic faith, all adult Muslims must carry out the pilgrimage at least once in their life, if they are physically and financially capable, as well as able to provide for their families in their absence. The Hajj is one of the largest annual gatherings of people in the world, and has been bringing together muslims from across the globe every year for thousands of years. The pilgrimage has evolved enormously since then, with camel caravans being replaced by steamships, steamships replaced by Boeing 747s, and small pilgrimages being replaced by a ever-growing number of pilgrims conducting the Hajj, with almost two million Muslims in 2016 travelling to Mecca.

Pilgrims fill the Hajj terminal in Jeddah, photography of Jay Langlois/SOM

With so many pilgrims travelling every year, countries receive an annual quota from the Saudi Arabian Hajj authorities as to how many pilgrims they may allow to travel to Mecca that year. With two million pilgrims travelling to Saudi Arabia each year, it can mean that a country can send hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. The logistical challenge is great, managing the transport and housing of these people each year, and on top of this, the Saudi Arabian Hajj authorities dictate that flights can bring pilgrims in as soon as one month in advance of the Hajj and take them home as late as one month after the Hajj. As a result, to shuttle these pilgrims in and out each year, hundreds of planes around the world get taken out of regular service in their countries and are put into service, operating flights to/from Jeddah and Madinah, the two closest airports to Mecca.

Photographs of Jeddah’s Hajj terminal after completion in the 1980s, photography of Jay Langlois/SOM

Hajj flights date back to 1937, when the Saudi Arabian government contracted Egypt’s Misr Airlines (modern-day EgyptAir), however, flights stopped during World War II. After then, air travel was used only by the rich, until the affordability of air travel in 1970s led tour companies and the government to start endorsing the use of air travel over steamships. Since then, the Saudi Arabian authorities have created strict protocols for Hajj air travel, requiring airlines to apply three to four months in advance for Hajj charter landing slots, and setting new regulations for flights to abide by.

Off-season, the Hajj terminal services the occasional Umrah charter as well some foreign carrier flights, Saudi and other local carriers also use the remote stands nearby, photo by the author

During this time, airlines start service between Jeddah, Medinah and cities in their home countries that would usually not get service by long-haul carriers. The number of flights operating into Jeddah can double during this time, with airlines operating flights from over 60 “seasonal” destinations in addition to increased Hajj frequencies from existing ones. Airlines dedicate heavy resources towards moving pilgrims from their home countries; Garuda Indonesia, the flag carrier of Indonesia, will be operating a dedicated fleet of three Boeing 747-400s, four Boeing 777-300ERs and seven Airbus A330-300s to move its portion of around 200,000 pilgrims to Saudi Arabia in the span of less than a month. Malaysia Airlines will be using a mix of Airbus A330-300s and Airbus A380-800s to move around 30,000 pilgrims. Saudia, the flag carrier of Saudi Arabia, will dedicate its entire Boeing 747 fleet as well as a number of its Boeing 777s and leased aircraft to move its share of Hajj pilgrims; the airline usually moves around half of each country’s Hajj pilgrims, which easily amounts to hundreds of thousands of people.

Design stage images of the Hajj terminal including a floor plan and its location in Jeddah’s airport complex, courtesy of SOM

The millions of pilgrims arrive mainly at the dedicated Hajj terminal at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, and the “state-of-the art Hajj pavilions” at Medina’s newly opened main terminal. Jeddah’s Hajj terminal, completed in 1981, features a unique, award winning open air concept inspired by Bedouin tents and designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM). The complex, one of the largest in the world at nearly three million square feet (260,000 m²), comprises of 21 “tents” of white colored Teflon-coated fiberglass fabric suspended by steel pylons. The majority of the terminal is a naturally ventilated “village” with a souk (market) and mosque, while customs, baggage handling and similar facilities are located in an air-conditioned building.

Medina’s new terminal features a Hajj section built into the main terminal building, unlike Jeddah. Source: TIBAH/TAV Airports

Meanwhile, Medina’s 2015 renovation of the airport through a consortium of Saudi and Turkish companies lead to a beautiful new $1.2 billion expansion consisting of a three-level terminal covering almost two million square feet (156,940 m²) with 16 aircraft stands and boarding bridges. Before the much needed expansion, the airport had reached its maximum capacity of 4.8 million annual passengers; the new terminal will have an initial capacity to serve 8 million annual passengers, greatly relieving the facility while also taking into consideration the Hajj and Umrah peaks. The next construction phases of the airport’s expansion plan seek to bolster its capacity up to 27 million annual passengers.

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