How flight disruptions put the skids under Entebbe Airport

Health officials screen people on arrival at  Entebbe International Airport on March 8, 2020. Photo / File

What you need to know:

  • Unbeknown to her, a plane had hours earlier skidded off runway 17/35 at Uganda’s solitary international airport. The episode culminated in, as it so often does, several flight cancellations and delays.

Ms Loyce Nanyonjo, 28, was plagued with jitters widely shared by first time flyers as she planned her commute to Entebbe International Airport on Wednesday this past week.

Unbeknown to her, a plane had hours earlier skidded off runway 17/35 at Uganda’s solitary international airport. The episode culminated in, as it so often does, several flight cancellations and delays.

Ms Nanyonjo, who was destined for Canada for pleasure —“to see my aunt”—and not business, said it was hard not to feel powerless and despairing in the face of disruptions to her plans. The airline she booked a flight with approached her with a coupon for supper after a punishing six-hour wait.

“I felt disappointed since it was my first time and I kept feeling a surge of anxiety,” she told Saturday Monitor on Thursday as the flight information display system started flashing departure/arrival times; not flight delays/flight cancellations. “All said, I am happy. Though my flight was delayed, I was looked after well and I am leaving Entebbe soon.”

As passengers at Entebbe faced hours of queues for check-in, security and baggage reclaim, not everyone was ready to look past the inconveniences Wednesday’s episode unintentionally willed into existence.

John Okera, a 37-year-old shipping agent, had booked a flight to the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa. The trip was purely for business. He had hoped to depart Entebbe on Wednesday night and start “clearing my clients’ containers” the next day. Yet Thursday found him still stranded at Entebbe.

Charles Eyuk, 31, also found himself sputtering along without conclusion on Wednesday. With the fading of afternoon into evening, he reluctantly came to the conclusion that his trip to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was not going to materialise.

Just yet, anyway. On Thursday, Mr Eyuk was in a better mood. Certainly good enough to tell Saturday Monitor that he was looking forward to going to the UAE “to work as a supermarket attendant.”

Arrested development?

The optimism of travellers at Entebbe like Mr Eyuk is nonetheless tempered by recognition of potential pitfalls ahead. While other international airports are entertaining the thought of upgrading their legacy systems, Entebbe has been undergoing an upgrade of an entirely different kind. The antiquated kind. Major refurbishments that include revamping runways, constructing new passenger terminals and a new cargo centre are expected to be completed in 2024.

“We are working on building another runway. We hope to complete it when we acquire phase two expansion money so that there is an alternative,” Mr Sooma Ayub, the director of airports and security at Uganda Civil Aviation Authority (UCAA), revealed.

Phase one of the $200m (Shs705b) upgrade of the airport courtesy China Communication Construction Company saw runway 17/35 get a fresh coat of paint in 2020.

 This was at the height of the first coronavirus wave when air connectivity across the world came to a screeching standstill. Yet despite being resurfaced, pilots—some of whom have clocked several flight hours—are reported to have talked about the runway’s poor quality in hushed tones.

Mr  Ayub described such claims as “extremely unfortunate.” He added that there is emphatic proof that runway 17/35 was given “a new lease to last long.” The runway is, he further offered, “fully compliant in terms of longitudinal and transverse slopes.”

Yet this didn’t insulate the airport from grappling with the chain of events that ended up with travellers like Mr Okera having their business trips deferred. UCAA said Mr Okera was not the only one left licking his wounds.

“When airlines don’t land here, we lose revenue…other service providers lose as well; it’s not a one-man show,” Mr  Fred Bamwesigye, the authority’s director-general said.

Most importantly, though, talk of a shoddy resurfacing job on runway 17/35 will only serve to demonstrate—with deadly spectacle—that Uganda got a raw deal by taking out a $325 million (Shs1 trillion) loan from Beijing in 2015. $200 million of the loan from EXIM Bank was ring-fenced for the expansion of the airport.

A report by the parliamentary Committee of Commissions, Statutory Authorities and State Enterprises (Cosase) recently said as much. It stopped short of describing the loan agreement as predatory.

“The loan terms referenced above were undesirable, unsustainable and a huge constraint to the country…Due diligence was not carried out by the negotiators on the government side,” the report reads in part.

Complaints about the quality of work will only serve to add salt to injury, leaving Ugandans more jittery than Ms Nanyonjo was ahead of maiden flight.