During his first address to the current Cabinet in June 2016, President Museveni tasked the Transport minister with revival of the Uganda Airlines.
“Ugandan travellers are suffering because of, apparently, not having a national airline,” Museveni told Cabinet.
This is almost 20 years after the national carrier was liquidated under a heavy financial debt. The President went on to express his disappointment with other national carriers which he thought would have come to Uganda’s rescue.
“I thought that our brothers in Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, etc. having airlines would serve all of us. That, however, is apparently not the case.”
The presidential order came 16 years after Uganda Airlines closed in May 2001 following failed attempts of acquisition to stave off its liquidation.
But what is not yet clear is whether Uganda Airlines’ revival is for business or pride’s sake. Whichever way, its burden will be shouldered by the taxpayer for some time until the national carrier can take off on its own.
Uganda Airlines was founded as a subsidiary of the Uganda Development Corporation in May 1976, though it did not take off until 1977.
Its creation had two driving forces: The collapse of the East African Community in 1976 and the international trade sanctions imposed on the Idi Amin regime.
According to Zobo Godfrey, a retired air traffic controller with the East African Airways and later marketing representative of Mitsubishi Aircraft International for East and Southern Africa, “Col [Gad Wilson] Toko and I were friends. It was through this friendship that I ended up playing a key role in the establishment of Uganda Airlines,” Zobo says.
“When the West imposed sanctions on Uganda in the ‘70s, Amin realised that Uganda’s geographical location would leave it at a disadvantage; not being able to sale its lifeline – coffee.”
Another source who asks not to be named in order to speak freely says, “The international sanctions on Uganda forced Amin to look for ways of economic survival. He went to Dubai and met with the Emir of Dubai. The two men agreed that Dubai would sell Uganda’s coffee as long as it was delivered in Dubai. It was the desire to transport Uganda’s coffee to Dubai that lead to the creation of a national carrier, not to transport passengers. The passenger aspect came much later.”
The first Uganda Airlines plane was initially to be supplied by the Egyptian army. However, when a Ugandan aviation engineer was sent to inspect the plane, he rejected it on mechanical grounds. He was put under pressure by the Egyptians to give the plane a clean bill of health, but he refused.
That night he was picked from the second floor of his hotel room and thrown out though the window. He Broke his leg. Though he survived, the engineer was disabled for life.
“The first plane to fly the national colours was a Boeing 707-320C freight plane got from Libya,” the source says.
With increased coffee demand in Dubai, the government of Uganda acquired a Hercules C130 to increase on the coffee exports and in return they brought the much needed essential as ordered by government.
“At the time, two freight planes were flying the national carrier. Passenger traffic at Entebbe was handled by Kenya Airways, Ethiopian Airlines, and Sabena,” says Zobo.
It was not until the short-lived Godfrey Binaisa regime purchased its fully-owned passenger plane.
“I was invited by then Transport minister Yoweri Kyesimira who took me to president Binaisa. During the meeting, the president asked if I could help Uganda Airlines secure a passenger aircraft. The first Uganda Airlines commercial passenger plane was a Boeing 707 which I helped negotiate on behalf of Uganda from Cathy Pacific, Hong Kong’s national carrier,” says Zobo.
“I used the company I was working with then and another company called Omnijet Trading. This plane was bought outright, not leased. It operated on the UK, Germany, Rome and Dubai route.”
With the Uganda Airlines revival seeming to gather steam, a retired aviation traffic officer cautions on what the proposed airline needs to do to be profitable.
“For an airline to be profitable, it would need to avoid government interference. The director and chairman should be given full authority on decisions affecting the airline without having to referrer to back to government,” the source says.
“There should be no government interference as an airline is a very sensitive industry. At the time of its closure, Uganda Airlines was performing better than Kenya Airways. All that has been said about the non-performance of the airlines by its closure is rubbish.”
By 1990, the Uganda Airlines fleet included one Boeing 707-320C, two Fokker F27-600S, one Lockheed L-100-30, one twin Otter and one B-N Trislander.
In March 1999, just before Alliance Air acquired the 49 per cent ownership in the national carrier, a Boeing 737 was acquired through a leasing programme from Air Zimbabwe to serve destinations such as Bujumbura and Kigali. However, following the Rome crush all European routes were discontinued.
Just before its closure, the national carrier found itself in a hard financial position. The government first tried a number of options which included privatisation where they wanted a private investor to keep it in the air.
A number of them showed interest, including South African Airways/Alliance, Air Mauritius, British Airways, Kenya Airways, Sabena and a privately owned South Africa-based air company called Inter Air.
Owing to the heavy debt the company had, all but Alliance left, leaving the company to end up as the sole bidder owning 49 per cent of the shares.
Alliance took over from 1999 until May 2001 when their operations, owing to legislation problems, ended. The national carrier closed shop.
In its years of operation, the national carrier experienced a few accidents. According to Aviation Safety Network, Uganda Airlines experienced one major accident that resulted in fatalities, while there were other incidents.
On April 1, 1979, Boeing 707-329C registration 5x-UAL while at Entebbe airport was destroyed by the Tanzanian forces that toppled Amin.
The only accident involving death was on October 17, 1988, when flight 775, a Boeing 707-320C registration 5X UBC while on an international schedule from London-Gatwick-Rome-Fiumicino Entebbe crushed as it approached Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino airport. Thirty three out of the 52 people on board perished.
At its peak, Uganda Airlines had a wide range of destinations. These were both domestic and international.
The international destinations included Brussels, Cologne, Rome, Mombasa, London, Bujumbura, Nairobi, Kigali, Dar es Salaam, Johannesburg, Mwanza, Kilimanjaro, Goma, Kinshasa, Lusaka, Dubai and Harare.
On top of those, it operated several domestic flights to places such as Arua, Kasese, Mbarara, Soroti and Tororo.