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Privatisation of Air India will impact Haj air operations: Govt panel

A Centre-appointed committee has said privatisation of Air India will have consequences on Haj operations and suggested the minority affairs and civil aviation ministries prepare their response in case the proposed disinvestment goes through. The committee, tasked with proposing the ‘Haj Policy 2018-22’, has also suggested that the Centre engage with the Saudi Arabia government and try to get the option of undertaking global tenders for Haj air charter operations.

The panel, with former union secretary Afzal Amanullah as the convener, who has served as the Consul-General of India in Jeddah, has noted that during air charter operations the flights go with pilgrims but return empty. It would be appropriate for the two ministries to explore the possibility of using empty flights for commercial purposes to bring down the cost, it has said. The panel has also made suggestions on the food served on the planes. “Food should be non-spicy, and as far as possible, suitable to the palates of the particular region from where the pilgrims are coming.”

The food has to be hygienically prepared and packed. It has also recommended random inspections to check its quality by officials, it said. “Before pilgrims disembark at Jeddah or Medina, the airlines must necessarily give an extra food packet and a bottle of water to each pilgrim,” it suggests. The panel submitted its report to Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi in Mumbai.

India has a Haj quota of 1.70 lakh pilgrims and besides air, the government is considering the option of ferrying pilgrims via the sea route also from the next year. “The privatisation of Air India, in case it happens, will have serious consequences on Haj air operations. The ministries and Haj Committee of India have to consider and plan how best to overcome the challenge that would arise in case of such an eventuality,” the panel said.

The committee, however, did not specify possible measures should the proposed privatisation of Air India goes through. The government has decided on strategic disinvestment of Air India and a group of ministers, headed by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, is working out the modalities. The committee has already many rounds of meetings.

The government has also sought applications from investment bankers, law firms and other entities to act as advisers for the strategic stake sale of Air India. Airlines staff need to be formally trained about the behaviour and attitude expected of them in their dealings with the Haj pilgrims, the committee has said. It also recommended necessarily having cabin crew knowing at least two Indian languages on each Haj charter flight. The panel has also proposed reviving the option of ferrying devotees by ship to Saudi Arabia to perform the annual pilgrimage.