After swearing in for a fifth term on May 12, 2016, President Museveni on June 23, 2015, delivered his inaugural speech to Cabinet and articulated the key priorities for the country.
Among the many things that the President promised was a plan to set up a national airline, lack of which, he said, was taking a heavy toll on travelling Ugandans.
“In these five years, Uganda will encourage the setting up of a national airline. Ugandan travellers are suffering because of, apparently, not having a national airline…. I did not care much about a national airline. 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,” he said.
Mr Museveni’s announcement was in line with the National Development Plan (NDPII), which was launched in June 2015. The plan listed establishment of an airliner as third on a list of six public investment projects lined up for implementation in the air transport sector between 2015 and 2020.
Others lined up for implementation during the same period include upgrade and expansion of Entebbe International Airport, upgrade of Kasese, Arua and Soroti airfields to international airport standards, construction of an airport in Hoima and upgrade of Jinja airstrip to an airfield.
The National Planning Authority (NPA) had initially put the initial capital outlay required to operationalise the revival of the airline at $400 million (about1.4 trillion).
The past airline
The planned national airline would in effect be a replacement for Uganda Airlines, which former president Idi Amin Dada formed in May 1976 and operationalised in 1977 following the collapse of the East African Community.
Amin had equipped the airline with an initial fleet of 15 aircrafts that plied various local, regional and international routes.
The airline, however, fell on hard times and was forced to wind up in 2001 amid challenges, including failure to get capitalisation from government and debts amounting to $6 million (about Shs21.3 billion).
During last year’s inaugural speech to Cabinet, Mr Museveni directed the line ministry to commence work on the task.
“The Ministry of Works and Transport is directed to conclude discussions with the investors that can help us to start a national airline. A national airline would help us save $420 million per year Ugandans spend on travel. The national airline will also create jobs and career opportunities for our children who train as pilots at Soroti Flying School,” he added.
On October 9, 2016, while speaking at Independence Day celebrations in Kiyunga, Luuka District, the President announced that plans to establish the national airliner were in very advanced stages.
“The NRM government has decided to start a national airline to stop the outflow of this money and to end travel inconveniences to Ugandans. We are now finalising the modalities,” he said.
Government had over the years come under intense criticism from, among others, the last managing director of the defunct Uganda Airlines, Mr Benedict Mutyaba, who accused it of mismanaging the airline at a time it was showing signs of recovery. “We weren’t getting any funding from them [government] even at the most of critical times… It is as if someone in government was planning to kill the airline,” Mr Mutyaba told Daily Monitor in a June 2015 interview.
However in Luuka, Mr Museveni cast some light on the circumstances under which the national flag career went under.
“We allowed Uganda Airlines to die because it was making losses and at that time, Ugandans were not travelling as much as today,” he said.
Subsequently, in a meeting held in the first week of March this year, Cabinet approved a proposal to get the airline off the blocks. It endorsed the idea of engaging a transactional adviser to help it go through the process of evaluating, among other things, the viability of the project and mode of operations. On December 21, 2016, State minister for Transport Aggrey Bagiire told Parliament’s Physical Infrastructure Committee that the national flag carriers would hit the skies by the close of August this year.
In July, Mr Museveni reinforced the belief that the timeline would be met when he told a delegation of Chinese investors led by Mr Zhu Weilin, the manager of Sino-Aero Construction Engineering Company Limited, specialists in construction of airports, that his government was committed to the project.
“We are going to revive the airline. It is very important because of tourism and cargo. It will serve us in the transport of cargo linking us with China, Dubai and other destinations. It will also serve well the Ugandans in the diaspora,” he told the delegation.
However, the August 2017 date that Minister Bagiire gave has since passed. The company is yet to be inaugurated and no national flag carrier has graced the skies.
President Museveni was recently quoted saying Ugandans annually spend $420 million (about Shs1.5 trillion) on travel. They perhaps would not have been spending as much had there been a national airline.
According to the chairman of the East African Business Council, Mr Mwinerugangura Kabeho, the collapse of Uganda Airlines and Air Uganda, and failure by the government to expedite establishment of a national carrier exposed Uganda travellers to exploitation by foreign operators.
“The result is that the cost of tickets here is the highest in the world. It is cheaper to fly to Dubai than to Burundi. Similarly, flights from Entebbe to Dar-e-salaam cost as much money as flying from Entebbe to Johannesburg. That is untenable,” he said.
This has served to increase the cost of doing business and perhaps stifled growth of the airlines business.
The chairman of the Uganda Tourism Board, Mr Daudi Migereko, says other sectors, especially tourism and the hotel and hospitality industry are suffering as such exorbitant air fares deter tourists from visiting. He says that they will only pay if what their destination has to offer is extremely spectacular.
Mr Aggrey Bagiire, the Transport state minister, says government has since assembled a team of people conversant with the aviation industry to help it operationalise the plan. The group, he says, includes retired pilots, flight engineers, former airlines managers and administrators, all of whom are expected to help government make an informed decision.
Their work entails laying on table a plan that will help inform government decisions on issues such as whether to wholly own or have partners, make the airline regional or international; hire, lease or purchase aircrafts and where to purchase in case a decision has been taken.
“We are coming to the tail end of that stage. We hope that a report will be out by Christmas. The question of when we get started will depend on the recommendations that government will choose to adopt,” he says.
Government should do everything within its power to expedite the process of setting up a new national airline. First and most important is that this is a question of pride. Most Ugandans find it inconceivable that their country has no national airline yet smaller and less economically endowed nations do. As the executive director of the Uganda Tourism Board (UTB), Mr Stephen Asiimwe, has argued before, a national airline presents Uganda with the biggest branding and marketing tool. President Museveni has over the years been one of the biggest proponents of marketing Ugandan food, culture and way of life.
While it would be difficult to, for example, influence other airlines to make their hostesses adorn Ugandan garments like the Kitenge and Busuuti, that can be done in our own airline.Similarly, while it might be difficult for Uganda to convince Kenya Airways or KLM to serve local cuisines such as chicken or smoked fish, luwombo and Katogo, in the same way as Emirates serves pilao, it would be quite easy for Uganda to encourage serving such local cuisines in a national airline. That is why government needs to expedite the process of re-establishing it.