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Crush at Jeddah Airport Turns Deadly

Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
& K.S. Ramkumar

Arab News

JEDDAH, 21 October 2007 — The continuing rush of departing passengers at Jeddah’s King Abdul Aziz International Airport North Terminal, which handles foreign airlines, has resulted in chaotic conditions and the death of one Pakistani man and the alleged deaths of at least two other passengers, according to sources.

Pakistan International Airlines confirmed yesterday that one of its passengers in his sixties died on Wednesday at the airport, but the airline declined to provide his name until his next of kin in Pakistan had been notified.

“One Indian woman died in front of the Gulf Air counter this past week,” said the regional manager of one Gulf airline, who asked for anonymity. “On Thursday night a pregnant Filipino woman died in the terminal,” the source added, saying that unfortunately her baby died too. Officials at the Philippine Consulate were unable to confirm her death, telling Arab News that they had no such information from Saudi authorities.

Two Egyptian passengers allegedly collapsed in the terminal on Wednesday as they waited in the huge lines of people trying to enter the terminal and check in for their flights. “The problem is that the stress of being crushed in these huge crowds while waiting for hours just to get through security and check-in has caused many passengers to collapse on the spot,” said the source. “And the paramedics are unable to reach them quickly because so many people are blocking their way.”

Most airlines have been reporting daily delays of at least three hours for each of their flights with the delays being caused by passengers unable to get through security and check-in in time.

“Hundreds of passengers are being left behind in Jeddah every day because of the rush,” said Ahmed Idrissi, the regional manager of Qatar Airways. “The Haj terminal is functioning but the authorities are allowing some airlines to operate some Umrah flights from the North Terminal, so this has caused additional problems.”

Airport officials were unavailable for comment.

A combination of factors has contributed to the massive crowds of departing passengers clogging the entrance halls at the North Terminal. A record number of Umrah pilgrims this year is part of the reason as well as the fact that KAIA is undergoing long-overdue expansion and renovation of existing facilities.

The airport, which was opened in 1981, was originally designed to handle 8.5 million passengers a year but it now handles 15 million passengers instead.

The other major contributor to the congestion is the Umrah tour operators, some of whom are offloading their pilgrims at the airport sometimes days before their flights. With no hotel accommodation to turn to, many pilgrims are forced to camp in front of the North Terminal, their bodies and luggage becoming obstacles that departing passengers have to step over or walk around.

Asked why airlines were not taking the situation in hand in order to bring some semblance of order to such chaos, Idrissi said that most airlines were overwhelmed by the rush of passengers and did not have the time to meet and discuss possible solutions. “I expect the rush to be over within four or five days,” said Idrissi.

But other passengers interviewed by Arab News were not so optimistic, noting that the crowds at the airport had been there since the beginning of the Eid Al-Fitr holidays. Some have complained that Umrah passengers should be made to use the Haj terminal, but airlines have claimed that they allegedly don’t have enough staff to process separately the Umrah and regular passengers who are traveling on the same plane.