What Doha airports can learn from Saudi Arabia’s handling of Hajj flights

Doha is gearing up to welcome some 1.7 million arrivals as the World Cup prepares to kick off this weekend. Qatar Airways alone expects to fly around 20,000 people a day to the city, and FIFA estimates there could be 500,000 visitors to the country on the busiest days.


Handling so many passengers in such a short time will be a challenge for Doha airports: both Hamad and the former Doha International will be used for these arrivals. But on the other side of the peninsula, a rival airport is more than used to dealing with large flows of arrivals at the same time.

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Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz International Airport is the starting point for one of the largest mass migrations of people in the world. Hajj is an annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, and is a mandatory religious task for Muslims that must be performed at least once in a lifetime. This year it was held between June 26 and July 1; the event typically sees more than two million visitors pouring into the country, though at its peak in 2012, that number rose to 3.16 million.

Hajj event at Jeddah airport

Photo: Getty Images


Management of the Hajj

To cope with this rapid mass influx of people, in 2007 Jeddah airport ordered a company to build terminals dedicated to Hajj and the minor pilgrimage of Umrah. Umrah does not have fixed dates, but many people like to make this trip during the month of Ramadan. In 2019, Saudi Arabia reported that it had received more than 7.2 million pilgrims in total, 6.4 million of whom had arrived by air.

Having a dedicated terminal isn’t just “nice to have”, with those kinds of numbers, it’s essential. The company in charge of building and operating the Hajj & Umrah Complex (HTC) is Ports Projects Management & Development Co (PPMDC). The terminals they created are huge, almost cities unto themselves, with 90 square kilometers (34 square miles) of space.

Inside the terminal, there are 14 gates and 210 immigration counters, set to handle a capacity of up to 13 million passengers. Since its opening, the terminal has served more than 85 million passengers, more than the entire population of Germany.

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Jeddah HTC Hajj and Umrah Terminal

Simple Flying spoke with the CEO of PPMDC, Eng. Adnan AlSaggaf, who explained in more detail how the HTC works during the Hajj period,

“The airport is configured to be able to receive only arrivals and then, within 3 days, to be reconfigured to receive only departures. Then, once the Hajj season is over, the airport will be reconfigured to receive departures and arrivals at the same time.”

He noted that this is a big effort that requires a lot of expertise to achieve. It’s also a rather unusual airport experience, given the demographics of those arriving, who tend to land with many pieces of luggage and are less interested in business expenses than typical leisure travelers would be.

Passengers arrive at the Hajj terminal in Jeddah

Photo: Getty Images

learning from the best

Doha’s Hamad International is well equipped to handle large numbers of passengers, with an annual capacity of 29 million. But are you prepared for the massive influx of jubilant soccer fans about to enter your halls? AlSaggaf noted,

“The soccer World Cup will channel thousands of fans. Airports must be prepared to serve a massive movement of passengers. In our experience, it will bring challenges and will require willingness and preparation with airport authorities and other stakeholders.”

Coordination will be key for passengers to have a great experience upon arrival in Doha. The usual route for passengers arriving in Doha is to go to a connecting flight; not many tend to emigrate and stay in the country. Hamad and Doha International will need all hands on deck to process these arrivals and avoid long queues.

Doha Hamad Passenger Terminal

Photo: Getty Images

Transit through Jeddah

Although the World Cup is taking place more than 800 miles from Jeddah, on the opposite side of the Arabian peninsula, Jeddah’s airport is bracing for an influx of transit passengers. Airlines from all over the world fly to Jeddah, creating a plethora of connecting opportunities from all corners of the globe.

Apart from local airlines such as Flynas, Flyadeal and Saudia, Jeddah will welcome arrivals from international airlines including Royal Jordanian, Malaysia Airlines and Turkish. Some airlines also offer direct connections to Doha, but many do not, including (but not limited to) Aegean, AirAsiaX, Ethiopian, Gulf Air, Pegasus, Spicejet, and Thai Airways.

Saudia and Flyadeal in Jeddah

Photo: Getty Images

From Sunday onwards, Saudia will operate a service to Doha several times a day, bringing people to the games from around the world. In the first week alone, Saudia will fly between Jeddah and Doha more than 3,000 times.

On November 20, four Saudia flights will operate, at 09:45, 10:10, 16:05 and 16:35, for both morning and afternoon arrivals at the airport. On the 21st, the eve of Saudi Arabia’s first match, there will be eight departures, and throughout the tournament, the airline will connect Jeddah with Doha with four or more services per day.

Ready for action

AlSaggaf points out that the HTC is ready and waiting to handle this influx of passengers and, thanks to its experience in mass passenger movement, it has all the facilities for people to pass through the airport efficiently. He commented,

“With the World Cup approaching the region, (HTC) is on hand and ready to welcome groups of fans coming and going from Doha cheering on their countries’ teams and enjoying being with friends and family. The HTCs operated by PPMDC are design suites for efficient and fluid management of group movement.”

passengers at the Jeddah terminal waiting to be transferred to Mecca for Hajj

Photo: Getty Images

Although PPMDC’s extensive experience in handling large numbers of passengers goes a long way in providing a seamless transit experience during the World Cup, AlSaggaf notes that the company does not take its services for granted.

“Understanding, meeting their requirements and seamlessly integrating processes across the airport pays off in passenger satisfaction. With our partners and stakeholders, we constantly monitor the satisfaction of our passengers and proactively look for any deficiencies that can be improved.”

Are you flying to the World Cup? Let us know your plans in the comments (click the blue speech bubble button below).

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