Entebbe airport: Moment of truth

UCAA director Fred Bamwesigye (left) and officials from China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) tour the new cargo centre at Entebbe International Airport on August 16, 2019.  PHOTO/FILE 

What you need to know:

  • The Uganda Airlines was revived in 2019 after nearly two decades. Since then, the airline has secured landing rights in China, Dubai, South Africa, and East African countries.
  • Efforts to gain ground in the United Kingdom and Europe in general, as well as the Americas seems still a pipe dream. 

An upcoming audit into the operations of the aviation industry has yet again cast Entebbe International Airport in the spotlight amid growing concern of absence of certification and below average safety scores earned in audits by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). 

This, according to sources acquainted with the industry, is affecting prospects of the Uganda Airlines, trade deals, and the country’s position in global aviation.

The low scores could also repulse big aviation players.

ICAO, a United Nations (UN) agency established to develop policies and standards and undertake compliance audits, to which Uganda is a member state, notes: “States shall certify aerodromes used for international operations in accordance with the specifications contained in this Annex, as well as other relevant ICAO specifications through an appropriate regulatory framework.”

Sunday Monitor understands Uganda has fallen short on the aforesaid specifications and other benchmarks. 

Mr Vianney Luggya, the public affairs manager at Uganda Civil Aviation Authority (UCCA), told us on Friday that officials from ICAO will conduct the Universal Security Oversight Audit Programme–Continuous Monitoring Approach (USOAP-CMA) from August 6 to August 18.

USOAP-CMA analyses the security performance, identifying deficiencies in the overall aviation security performance of member states while assessing the risks associated with such deficiencies. 

The eight areas of interest are legislation, organisation, licensing, operations, airworthiness, accident investigation, air navigation services and aerodromes.

Auditors scrutinise players approved by UCAA, including airlines, the airports, and training institutions to establish compliance with requirements of the global aviation industry. 

A similar audit was last conducted in Uganda in 2014, and the country scored below the global average. 

In a debrief by a concerned sector player acquainted with the Ugandan state of affairs, a grim picture is painted. The debrief, seen by Sunday Monitor, reads in part: “Uganda Civil Aviation has been trying to certify Entebbe International Airport since 2014, but poor management and failure to conform to standards in key areas like accident investigation, operations, safety and security have continued to bedevil the aviation sector.”

It adds: “… Twelve years later, the standards have still not been met. Recently, the UK Prime Minister Trade envoy to Uganda, Lord Popat, complained to President Museveni about the failure of Ugandans to fly to London. The main problem why Uganda cannot fly to most Western destinations is because of the lack of certification of Entebbe International Airport.”

Absence of this nod by the global body affects the landing rights of the country’s airline. 

The Uganda Airlines was revived in 2019 after nearly two decades. Since then, the airline has secured landing rights in China, Dubai, South Africa, and East African countries. Efforts to gain ground in the United Kingdom and Europe in general, as well as the Americas seems still a pipe dream. 

Ms Shakira Rahim, the public relations manager at Uganda’s flag carrier, said: “We are still working with UCAA on the London route. We have received all the necessary support required.” She did not divulge further details, but our sources say failure to secure the London route is negatively impacting the national carrier’s ledger. 

Other sources have indicated the outdated certification status has negated the airline’s prospects in the UK and mainland Europe. 

“What the external agencies like the UK CAA and EASA would do is subject entities from Uganda to more rigorous checks, yet, with a high safety oversight score, this would not be the case … Without a commitment to improve the certification status, flights into the USA will be impossible. This is because Uganda, more notably Entebbe International Airport, does not meet the requirement for an airport to be able to fly to the United States of America,” one of our sources intimated.

They added thus: “The biggest effect to the state of Uganda is that economic welfare projects like the initiatives being spearheaded by the DFID (UK) where Uganda would be exporting food directly to UK supermarket shelves, can’t kick off without these improved oversight safety systems and certification levels.”

Mr Luggya admitted that “when the score is low, it definitely has a negative impact, but if it is high, it gives a vote of confidence and demonstrates compliance with ICAO practices and recommended practices.” He proceeded to note that “it is important that Uganda demonstrates compliance and puts up a good score in the upcoming audit.”

He, however, in response to the nearly decade-long lapse since the 2014 audit explained that the UCCA does not set the schedules for inspections, adding that they are “currently closing any gaps” ahead of the audit. 

“It was initially scheduled for 2020, but due to Covid, it was rescheduled first to 2021 then to September 2023. We are not the ones who determine the dates, but the international body determines when to audit states,” he told Sunday Monitor.

Other East African nations are also in line to be audited. 

“The Directorate of Safety, Security & Economic Regulation (DSSER), charged to ensure Safety and Security of the aviation industry and compliance with the ICAO Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs) has done the work required,” Mr Luggya said, sounding optimistic.  

Another audit – Universal Security Audit Programme (USAP)—is due next year. This particular one was last done in 2017 where Uganda scored 81 percent above the 72 percent global average. 

Mr Luggya further explained that the country is in good books since it has never registered a “significant safety concern”, which is a key decision driver for large sector players and airlines to land or not to. 

Poor track record 
The airport has been under expansion works, but these have not been devoid of flaws and defect allegations. The revamped runway notably came in for lots of criticism after a RwandAir plane skidded off during landing last April. President Museveni expressed anger in a memo that UCAA appeared not to have equipment to haul off the stricken passenger plane.

In January 2019, an Ethiopian Airlines (Boeing 737-800) carrying 139 people skidded off the runway when it landed at the Entebbe International Airport. The airport has also been bedeviled by allegations of corruption, and less than satisfactory infrastructure.