The is airborne again, as of this past week, after nearly two decades in the aviation grave. But will it soar, forward and upward, quickly enough for critics and admirers alike?
Going by chatter on social media, where else, it appears Ugandans will settle for nothing that is not excellent performance. They don’t expect the sky to be the limit.
The cynics, even in their rank cynicism, are essentially daring Uganda Airlines management to prove them wrong. To them, no big and ambitious project the government embarks upon succeeds. Grand corruption, nepotism, and cronyism will sink it. Or if it gets delivered, it will come in late, above budget, and shoddy. The on-going rumpus around UTL and talk of the mafia inside the belly of the government, plus the brawl surrounding the Finasi/Roko hospital project are clear and present examples of chronic State malaise. The small matter of issuing tickets with handwritten information on the ceremonial flight on Tuesday got the cynics into hysterics. See, we told you: if you can’t get the small things right from the get-go, you sure can’t get the big ones right down the runway.
The others who think this airline thing is a non-starter argue that it is not so much because it is a government project, but rather that the aviation industry is a tight one with virtually no money to make. In any case, the region is full of carriers in distress and reliant on state bailout or some such support to stay afloat. Kenya Airways, RwandaAir, South African Airlines, are all in turbulent airspace. The critics don’t want the Ugandan government to lose taxpayer money to fund a loss-making business.
Others, the ones who claim to see the big picture, say it is worthwhile pumping bundles of shillings into Uganda Airlines should it come down to that in the coming years. The airline is a strategic national asset, they argue. It is a critical piece of infrastructure that will spur other sectors of the economy such as tourism, export of perishables like fish and flowers, and attract international meetings, conferences and exhibitions because connectivity will be easier. Besides, the turbulence of regional carriers doesn’t mean the same fate will necessarily befall Uganda Airlines.
Then there are the cheerleaders. For them every big project the government embarks on is the latest great example of steady progress. They also look at the revived airline with national pride. If the Rwandans and the Tanzanians can have aircraft zipping across the sky, we too must have under the wise leadership of Mzee. We need the national colours up there in the clouds.
The sceptics. These ones are a little bemused, a little ambivalent. They are not cynics, they neither detest nor love the government, and the strategic-asset argument to them is not all that persuasive. Those who can fly won’t necessarily go out of their way to fly Uganda Airlines. This group is simply watching: if the thing flies and soars, good; if it doesn’t, no surprises. At heart they wish Uganda Airlines well.
Whatever the outlook of Ugandans on social media, the only thing that will unite them is if Uganda Airlines starts winning and winning soon and big. A great service (keep time, don’t lose passenger luggage, spell the word ‘passenger’ correct, have a working on-board PA system), a cost-effective business, competent management, zero political interference may just be the minimum needed.
Like we do for our winning sports teams and individuals, we shall in unison sing praises of Uganda Airlines and its managers when (good) stuff happens. And the bar is not that high — in the wider scheme of things Ugandan where the government has a direct hand.
Bernard Tabaire is a media trainer and commentator on public affairs based in Kampala.