The privatisation of Air India will have serious consequences on Haj flights, a government-appointed committee has said, PTI reported on Sunday. The committee suggested the minority affairs and civil aviation ministries prepare a plan in case the proposed privatisation goes through.

The panel, headed by former Union secretary Afzal Amanullah, said 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, the panel said.

The committee submitted its report to the Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi in Mumbai on Saturday. “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 measures should the proposed privatisation of Air India go through.

The committee, which is tasked with proposing the ‘Haj Policy 2018-22’, has also suggested the Centre engage with the Saudi Arabia government to explore undertaking global tenders for Haj air charter operations.

The panel has made recommendations about the food served on the flight. “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 panel said airlines must give pilgrims an extra food packet and a bottle of water before they get off at Jeddah or Medina.

The panel suggested training airline staff for these flights, and recommended having cabin crew who know at least two Indian languages. India has a Haj quota of 1.70 lakh pilgrims. From next year, the government is also considering ferrying pilgrims by sea.

Earlier, the panel had proposed that women over the age of 45 years should be allowed to go for the Haj pilgrimage without a male guardian, if they travel in groups of four or more.

Rising Air India debts

The government has decided on a strategic disinvestment of Air India. A group of ministers, headed by finance minister Arun Jaitley, is working out how the privatisation will take place. In September, the government sought applications from investment bankers, law firms and other entities to act as advisers for the stake sale.

By the end of 2016-17, Air India’s debts amounted to Rs 48,876 crore. It has Rs 28,000 crore as working capital debt and Rs 4,000 crore as interest burden alone, according to the Financial Express. It has not turned a profit in 10 years, the report said.