By Ashraf Abdul Wahab.
Tripoli, 24 July:
Two wide-bodied aircraft, each with a capacity of 500 passengers, are being leased by Afriqiyah Aviation . . .[restrict]Holding Company to meet the surge in demand from Libyan pilgrims wanting to perform Umrah in Mecca during Ramadan.
Afriqiyah Aviation is the parent company of Libyan Airlines and Afriqiyah Airways. Both are scheduled to be merged shortly.
According to the undersecretary at the Ministry of Transport, Fawzi Bitamer, the two aircraft are expected to arrive in the next day or two. They would, he said, handle all outstanding Umrah pilgrim requirements as well as fly home any Libyans who had already performed Umrah but who faced the possibility of being stranded in Saudi Arabia.
Bitamer said the move was necessitated in part because the Saudi embassy in Tripoli had approved a record number of Umrah visas for Libyans during Ramadan.
For Muslims, the performance of Umrah in Ramadan is equivalent in merit to performing Haj.
Noting that Libyan Airlines and Afriqiyah Airways are currently running daily flights to Jeddah for pilgrims, Bitamer explained that arrangements had been made about a month before Ramadan with the two airlines to try and avoid problems. Unfortunately, not enough Libyan aircraft were available. There were also problems as a result of the Qaddafi era, he said. These had included sanctions and poor international maintenance standards.
He revealed that an Afriqiyah Airways Airbus 330 has been prepared for Umrah flights and was due to take fly to Jeddah with pilgrims last Tuesday. But it had been hit by a bullet fired by an unknown gunman and rendered unusable until repaired.
On the issue of a number of the suspension of a number of Afriqiyah Airways flights to African destinations, Bitamer said the routes were commercially unprofitable at present. Most of them depended on transit passengers coming from Europe, he said. However, for the moment, most European airlines were not operating into Libya. The carrier was therefore reconsidering its route strategy. Flights to Sudan, Ghana, Niger, Chad and other places might return once the situation was more assured but they would be evaluated as to cost effectiveness and profitability.
In fact one of the reasons for the lack of transit passengers from Europe is that Libyan aircraft are still banned from flying to EU airports because of issues about maintenance documentation and personnel certification. These are not expected to be resolved until November at the earliest.