Overcrowding at the Jeddah airport
Overcrowding at the Jeddah airport Image Credit: Supplied

If there is a single word to describe the events that occurred a little over a week ago at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, it would be the word ‘disaster’.

Why the airport in Jeddah is important is simply because it is indeed the gateway to the two holy mosques in Makkah and Madinah and any form of disturbance is very quickly magnified.

Here’s basically what happened. As thousands of travellers who had completed the religious rituals during the holy month of Ramadan and were eager to return home and celebrate the Eid holidays with their loved ones made their way to the very airport that brought them to the country a few days earlier, they witnessed chaotic scenes with large numbers of departing passengers stranded outside the terminal due to overcapacity.

Soon the blame game started while not much effort was being taken to immediately address the situation. Airport officials blamed the Umrah establishments for the congestion by bringing their pilgrims to the airport 12 hours before the flight’s departure time.

An overcrowded terminal

The chaotic scenes around the airport terminal with the overcrowding were triggered by the arrival of departing pilgrims who came well before their flight time.

The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah also warned companies not to send their pilgrims 12 hours before the flight departure time. The ministry vowed to slap strict fines on the violating companies while also laying punitive measures of banning them from operating for one year.

All this while the unfortunate passengers were made to squat on floors in the lounges or out in the parking lot under the heat for lack of seating arrangements. The Crown Prince ordered the immediate setting up of tents and health and relief facilities for the stranded passengers.

Some of the commentaries from departing passengers were not flattering, to say the least. One stated that she had ‘no words for the absolute chaos at Jeddah Airport north terminal. Delayed flights, missed connections, people locked outside in the sun, no updates, never-ending queues, and people hassled.’

Another added, ‘It was a crisis. We ran out of food and water. There were people around us who were severely dehydrated because of high temperature. The staff at Jeddah airport refused entry to us even though we had paid for a flight.’

The daughter of one of the flight crew said that her dad had been stuck at the airport for over 15 hours because apparently, something is going on with their system or whatever. ‘And mind you, he’s one of the pilots. Imagine how the passengers are feeling right now.’

One of those distressed passengers went on social media to express his emotions quite colourfully: ‘You cannot get out of the terminal at Jeddah, it’s very small, but packed with thousands of people at any given time. No good food, very few, and bad toilets with dirty water flowing everywhere. WORST AIRPORT exp. ever! Wouldn’t do it again even if the ticket is free.’

Not very flattering indeed for a city that has recently boasted of hosting world-class events on part with leading nations of the world. The Minister of Transport set up an urgent investigation committee led by the head of the General Authority of Civil Aviation to investigate what really happened, and while I applaud him for his quick resolution, I wonder if having an investigation committee headed by a department that could have had a hand in the mess result in any frank report of what actually happened and why it did. Eventually, it was decided to fire the CEO of the airport.

Incompetence is not just the work of one individual. It is in a system that allows such ineptitude to flourish, and for proper treatment, all such elements in the system must be flushed out.

Carrying over bureaucrats from the last era who have been clinging on for so long with their brand of inefficiency must quickly come to an end if the kingdom is to make its 2030 vision come true. Fresh energetic, and bias-free blood should be injected into the wheels of bureaucracy.

Jeddah summer season festivals are being touted everywhere. Cultural tourism is being heavily promoted as the city readies itself for an influx of foreign tourists. The airport is the eye of the city. But if there is indeed another bottleneck or chokepoint like what had happened in the past week, then all that promotion goes in vain.

Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi sociopolitical commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena