Return of regional airlines: The long and uncertain wait

Uganda Airlines has not set a date for its return to the skies, but it is evident, it will have to, at some point, pick up the pieces, just like other regional airlines, to operate amid the “chaos” in the aviation sector. Photo | File

What you need to know:

  • Whereas Uganda Airlines has no date when it will return to the skies, other regional airlines including RwandAir and KQ will resume operations at the close of this week.
  • Save for chartered flight, the national flag carrier, according to Perez Ahabwe, the Uganda Airlines chairman, resumption of commercial flights is dependent on only and when government opens up the airspace and if destination countries are open to air traffic.

Airlines have started picking up the pieces. At least, they are not letting go. They will put in a fight to get back in the skies - albeit amid uncertainty.

Some countries are still closed out to external flights and certainly there is no guarantee when they will open or if they open, they won’t close again.

In Uganda, passenger flights, apart from chartered ones and those carrying cargo, are still suspended.
Definitely, operations for many airlines at Entebbe, Uganda’s only international airport, are dependent on when the airport will re-open.

For instance, Uganda Airlines, unlike other regional airlines, has not put a date on when it will be flying again.

Save for chartered flight, the national flag carrier, according to Perez Ahabwe, the Uganda Airlines chairman, resumption of commercial flights is dependent on only and when government opens up the airspace and if destination countries are open to air traffic.
As of January 2020, Uganda Airlines had been operating flights to Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia, South Sudan and Tanzania.

Most of these countries have indicated they will or have already opened their airspaces.
This, Ahabwe says, would have enabled them to fly to Kigali or Nairobi but the hub, from which Uganda Airlines operates is still closed.

Kigali and Nairobi will resume international passenger travel on Saturday or August 1 while Dar es Salaam and Juba have been open for close to a month now.

Chaos abroad
Therefore, in essence, what is holding back Uganda Airlines is the decision for the Uganda government to open up Entebbe Airport, which has been closed since March and will, according to President Museveni remain closed “until the situation abroad settles because there is so much chaos in some countries abroad”.

The chaos relates to the increasing Covid-19 cases. But from how it looks, some regional neighbours have settled in to the chaos and opened up.

In Kigali passenger flights will resume on Saturday, just like in Kenya, where the government had already lifted the ban on internal flights.
Both Rwanda and Kenya, had closed their borders to international traffic about five months ago.

However, they have re-opened and RwandAir early this week indicated it will resume flights to a “select African routes where borders are open”, perhaps minus Uganda.

Yvonne Makolo, the airline’s chief executive officer, indicated more routes will be added as countries lift travel restrictions.

The airline has also invested in some measures prescribed by International Civil Aviation Organisation and World Health Organisation and Makolo says: “We have made sure that aircrafts [are] thoroughly disinfected after each flight”.

The airline, according to Sabin Nsanzimana, the Rwanda Biomedical Center director general, has also given simulation drills of how to handle a case, in the event that it is detected on-board.

RwandAir flies to 20 destinations across east, central and west Africa but some routes such as Entebbe, Kinshasa (DR Congo), Johannesburg and Cape Town (South Africa), remain closed.

In Kenya, Najib Balala, the country’s Tourism Cabinet Secretary, has already indicated Qatar Airways, Emirates, British Airways, KLM and Air France will resume operations on Saturday.

KQ is already operating internal flights, and just like all the above airlines, has published resumption of scheduled international flights spreading through the period to August 14.

Major changes
But the resumption won’t be without changes or to some inconveniences.
Strict health measures that, for instance, require passengers to, among others, have a negative Covid-19 certificate, have been put in place while at some points such as Kigali International Airport, thermal cameras have been installed to screen and monitor travelers’ temperatures.

Other measures such as autonomous robots, which according to reports, have the capacity to screen up to 150 people per minute for temperature before notifying workers of abnormalities, have been deployed at some airports.

Sadly though, none of these airlines will be flying to Entebbe “until when the chaos has settled”.
This might rile some, but the country has performed well in containing Covid-19 reporting only 1,128 cases and two deaths, at least by yesterday.

Rwanda has reported five deaths from 1,879 cases, while Kenya has had to seriously battle to save 18,581 confirmed cases, 299 of which have gone with the wind.
Tanzania is no longer publishing details of Covid-19 while Burundi was only woken to the reality of the damage the virus can cause after it claimed Pierre Nkurunziza, the country’s former president.

Counting the cost
Covid-19 has taken a toll on human lives but the havoc it has or will leave in the aviation industry is expected to be dire.
According to the International Air Transport Association, days into the global lockdown, airlines in Africa had already lost around $4.4b with global losses going up to $113b

In Kenya, KQ, in the earlier days of the lockdown, indicated it estimated to lose up to $100m due to Covid-19 and the figure could go up to at least $500m if the lockdown continued to the end of the year.
Daily Monitor contacted RwandAir on its losses due to Covid-19 but could not get the details by press time.

Roger Wamara, the Uganda Airlines commercial manager, indicates the airline, just like any other business, has been affected, with the only business coming through chartered flights.
The airline, he says, has lost at least 80 per cent of projected sales and revenue. However, he does not provide the absolute figure.

Tourism and hotels
In all the chaos surrounding aviation, the saviour lies in how fast the tourism sector picks up the pieces. Tourism is a major source of revenue for not only Uganda but Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda. This means that the aviation sector will, both in the short and long term, need tourism to return from the buttered state it currently finds itself in.

In its May 2020 report about: Economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on East African economies, Delloitte & Touche, indicated the sector had been decimated, which subsequently will have far and wider implications for the larger economy.

Therefore, the resumption of flights could open both the region’s tourism sector and the hotel and hospitality sector.
Tourism is Uganda’s main source of foreign exchange, constituting 7.7 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product.

Tourism will feed into the hotel sector that has already indicated it has registered a decline in occupancy rate from the 2019 average of 80 per cent to 20 per cent. At least the sector has since March lost close to $20m.
In Tanzania, Delloitte & Touche has reported that the hotel and hospitality sector had also recorded a decline with occupancy rates falling from the 50.3 per cent average in 2019 to 23.5 per cent.

Uganda airlines
Waiting for government: The return of Uganda Airlines, according to Perez Ahabwe, the company’s chairman, is dependent on only and when government opens up the airspace and if destination countries open up to air traffic.

Additional Reporting by Dorothy Nakaweesi