Monday, 31 March 2014

The Chartered Flight that Delayed : My First Umrah Trip Experience

Assalamualaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh to all beloved muslim brothers and sisters. At the age of 40 which was the same age our Prophet Muhammad Peace be Upon Him (PBUH) was granted the prophethood, I had this greatest opportunity of all to make an umrah and ziarah Rasulullah PBUH in Saudi Arabia (Makkah Almukarramah and Madinah Almunawwarah respectively). Alhamdulillah Allah made it easy for me and my husband, and made the pre arrangements very smooth and hassle free for us. We made the booking in September 2013 with Andalusia Travel and Tours Sdn Bhd ("Andalusia"), our trusted travel agent for the trip, and we managed to attend the umrah preparation course 3 times before we flied. One of the reasons we chose Andalusia was because they are among those few travel agents who provide weekly umrah preparation course without fail, and this course is open to public indeed Masha Allah (although such course is meant for Andalusia's customers,  because they would not check the identity of those coming so literally it is open to all).

As we were first timers (never perform umrah and ziarah before) and with the guide of my office mate who is also an appointed  tour leader with Andalusia, things became easy and ran smoothly for us. We got our big luggage bag, cabin bag and a sling bag with the Andalusia logo and trademark printed on them just few days upon the booking fee was paid. Nice, Alhamdulillah. 

Being a servant of Allah SWT with full of sins, I was too nervous. I heard about stories of those who did not made it, few of them could not see the Kaabah, they got lost in their way and so on and so forth. Na'uzubillah...I was telling myself, I must repent and regret over all my sins and disobedience to Him. Alhamdulillah Allah SWT being the Most Merciful...I made my own spiritual preparation and I knew by heart I was all set and ready for the day.

So time was ticking, we were counting months, then weeks then by days. We were supposed to fly off on 8 Jan 2014 (KUL-MED ), EDT 2055 (8.55pm) via a chartered flight with Saudi Airlines. However just few days before our departure, there were news in the media that reported an emergency landing by a Saudi Airlines aircraft in the Madinah Airport. I brushed off immediately the thought that something was going to happen and kept comforting myself that our flight would be forthcoming and would be just okay.

Nevertheless as my instinct told me, the night before the departure we received a message from Andalusia that the flight might be delayed to morning the following day. But we still had to assemble at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) as per the original schedule. So sticking to the original schedule we gathered at the check-in counter at 6pm and checked in our baggage, still hoping that the flight would depart as scheduled. 

Little that we knew that Allah had other plans for us. As Allah SWT mentioned in Surah Al-Imran 3:54 :

"And they planned and Allah (also) planned, and Allah is the best of planners"

It was almost 7pm and still no signs that we would get our boarding pass. Finally the confirmation came from the airlines representative that our flight had to be postponed to the following day, estimated to depart at 11.30am. We were given a food voucher and later transferred to the not-so-nearby JW Marriot Hotel in Putrajaya. Imagine the big flock of the chartered flight pessengers...5 express buses were chartered to take and transit us to the hotel. It was a chaotic moment indeed, the hotel lobby was crowded and noisy, 5 mutawwifs were running back and forth with the room check-in listing, some jemaah demanded dinner to be served despite food voucher (worth RM25 per pax) given at the airport...but eventually we settled down and slowly but surely everyone got to their room at around 12am. Because of the message we received the night before about the possible delay, most of us had our clothing for the next day, Alhamdulillah. 

Check-in process for departure at the counter

The next morning after breakfast,  we all were set for KLIA again. The 5 express buses left the hotel between 7.30am to 8.00am. Later there was a briefing by the mutawwifs at 11am telling us that the flight was further delayed to 2pm. At this time all the boarding passes were already distributed and our international passport was given back to us. After collecting our boarding pass we proceeded to the boarding gate, this time we prayed even harder that Allah SWT made the departure successful for us.

It was 2pm and most of us have excitedly passed the final security check. Hundreds of jemaah waited patiently in the waiting area just before you enter the aircraft (I hope you can imagine the small area where passengers would queue up just before they walk through the passage to enter the aircraft). There was however one big problem, we did not see the plane there!

As patient as we could, we proceeded to read our Salah at the Gate while waiting to be called for the departure and sought His forgiveness for all the sins that all of us have committed. Thinking positively and with prayers for the mercy of Allah, we comforted each other that perhaps the aircraft was in its way to the deck, and when we saw a team of cabin crews wearing the Saudi Airlines uniform made their way and passed by our waiting gate area, aah, here they come our aircraft last. Sadly however, the team was heading for a different flight. It was already 3.00pm now and obviously the flight departure was further delayed. Some old folks started having discomfort, young fellows walking back and forth anxiously with their smartphones, the mutawwifs looked very worried and concerned but they could not do much. Few debates and heated arguments started between the passengers and the airlines representative.
Again...another 1day delay ??
Subsequently at almost 4pm, news broke that there was a technical problem with the aircraft. At the same time, other speculations aroused such as the Indian Government disallowed entry to their air due to security reason, which we found very absurd. Another reason for the delay as we heard, saying that the pilot and the crews just flew another chartered flight  some hours earlier and required rest for few hours before getting on board for our flight. I personally found it weird as how could the pilots and the crews dictate how long they want to have rest when a flight departure schedule is strictly controlled and determined by the airport management (I think so...).

Me and fellow jemaah at the boarding gate at the KLIA

Eventually the airlines representative confirmed that there would be further delay but they could not tell when exactly the aircraft would be ready to take off. All of us were taken to the nearby hotels  again for transit. There were mixed feelings among us; anxiety, sad, anger, hopeless (towards people whom you trusted yet they failed to serve) and one thing for sure it increased and strengthened our iman to the Almighty and to Him alone you ask for mercy and goodness. We were literally on a standby mode at the hotel until 8pm in case if there would be call for departure. However as midnight approached, still no news about our flight. Shortly after 8pm, we were advised to get our rest accordingly and prepare for tomorrow. The accommodation and the meals provided at the hotel were okay, Alhamdulillah.      

The next morning, we patiently packed our belongings and checked out from the hotel. Most of us wore the same clothing we had the day before. We flocked straight to the boarding gate and waited there for a few hours, and finally we boarded the aircraft at about 2pm. As human, no doubt there was a bit of frustration as 2 days were gone but immediately within seconds later we knew we were blessed as it was Allah's will and mercy that we eventually landed at the Madinah airport safe and sound.   

35,000 ft high above Oman...and that must be the desert.

Nabawi Mosque's external compound fronting the Osman Affan gate/door

O Allah! Bring me back to this place again and could I ever forget the tranquility and peace felt the moment I stepped on this sacred land of Madinah.

Beautiful view during sunset

After 4 days in Madinah we proceeded to Makkah to perform the umrah. Everything was great. It was a blissful journey with some challenges here and there which resulted in the strengthening of the iman. I thanked Allah for this opportunity and prayed hard that I will make a comeback in shaa Allah.

The time came for us to bid farewell and completed Tawaf Wida'. We left for Jeddah at about 3pm. The bus took us to the Qisas Mosque and thereafter to the Floating Mosque along the way. We reached the Jeddah Airport at almost 9pm.

Qisas Mosque, Jeddah

The Floating Mosque at night
Again, we were tested with another flight delay. Our home-bound flight supposed to take off at 3.00am but delayed to 7am in the morning. Learnt from the last lesson, the jemaah now became more in charge and vocal. The airlines management took ownership of the issue and as promised, we boarded the aircraft at 7am. Alhamdulillah we made our journey home and landed at the KLIA safely.

Waiting patiently
Well, the story did not end upon return. There were attempts among the jemaah for refund from the travel agent company due to losses arising from the delays. As for the airlines company, I guess they had done their job for providing the accommodation and meals. After 1 month, we got a refund of a certain sum from Andalusia out of their courtesy and goodwill. Although the amount is insignificant, what more important is the gesture by the travel agent, their professionalism as well as the accountability shown to ensure customer satisfaction for their clients. I must admit that this experience will not stop me from getting more service from Andalusia.

The country is struck with the sad tragedy of the missing of our national carrier, MH370. As I am writing this post, the MH370 flight is still gone missing. This tragedy should bring closeness to our Creator in heart as anything can happen to us in the nick of time, as Allah says in the Quran, "Kun fayakun". Whatever we face and endure in life is nothing but a test to gauge our iman and faith to Him alone. Praises to Allah that we made our flight for umrah despite the delays. I hope that the aircraft of MH370 and all the cabin crews and passengers are somewhere, safe and sound. Nothing is impossible if Allah wills. Lets pray and in the meantime, keep counting the blessings Allah has given us. Wassalam.    


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