More details emerge on defects at Entebbe airport

The interior of the expanded terminal building at Entebbe airport. A water leak has been reported at the new cargo complex. Photo / Eve Muganga

What you need to know:

  • Aviation regulator assures all is fine despite water leak through structure yesterday flooding the departure hall as did the septic tank at the new cargo complex. UPDF engineers took over upgrade works at the facility at the weekend on the back of the RwandAir skidding incident, which is being investigated.

The UPDF Engineering Brigade on Saturday began works at Entebbe International Airport after this newspaper exposé last week raised questions about the quality of infrastructure upgrade works and safety of the facility.

 State House sources, speaking on condition of anonymity due to fear of reprimand, said President Museveni upon reading our Thursday story separately ordered investigations into the status of the airport’s main runway, 17/35, and other new facilities before he flew out to Nairobi, Kenya.

 Our investigations chronicled allegations of improper markings of the runway, aprons and taxiways as well as a smaller new cargo centre with inadequate cold rooms improperly positioned for operations.

 Mr Fred Bamwesigye, the director general of Uganda Civil Aviation Authority (UCAA), yesterday confirmed that the army engineers had started works at the facility, but dismissed allegations that some of the works under the $200m upgrade were of poor quality.

 His denials yesterday came two days after Members of Parliament (MPs) on the Physical Infrastructure Committee made an impromptu visit to Entebbe airport to ascertain the status of the facilities.

 The committee chairperson and vice to whom Mr Bamwesigye referred us were unavailable as their known telephone numbers were switched off.

 However, Iganga Municipality MP Peter Mugema, who is a member of the committee, said they found about 70 percent of phase one of the airport infrastructure upgrade and expansion, contracted out to China Communication Construction Company (CCCC), had been done.

 “The UPDF took over from the contractor to work on the taxiways … we saw cracks had developed. UCAA said it will rectify the shoddy work soon. It was a presidential directive because he (the President) said instead of giving money to the contractor, they should give it to the UPDF,” Mr Mugema said.

 His comments were met with disdain by the aviation regulator, which questioned his motive to pre-judge the quality of the army work.

 As UCAA director general and spokesperson Vianney Luggya separately denied alleged poor quality of the new facilities, staff struggled yesterday to work after the departure lounge flooded.

The source of the water is understood to be a lingering leak through the structure. The flooding problem forced staff to use the transit for arriving VIPs after attempts by in-house plumbers and engineers to resolve the problem failed.

 The areas around the lift of the arrival lounge were also flooded, and attempts by A&M janitors to vacuum the place yielded only a temporary solution.

 Airport officials said they expected a consultant to be on site mid-morning today to ascertain the cause of the leak and explore a permanent solution.

 Details of information obtained from, and corroborated with multiple sources, point to a litany of faults that this newspaper understands caught the attention of President Museveni in 2021.

 A Cabinet meeting that he chaired on September 13 of that year decided that the UPDF Engineering Brigade complete the construction of the new terminal building that had been contracted to CCCC.

 Subsequently, the government on October 18 --- slightly more than a month after the Cabinet decision --- released Shs15b to UCAA as part of the expenses for the terminal building.

 Our investigations show that the presidential directive to get the army working on the airport was not implemented for months, prompting Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja to summon stakeholders for an emergency meeting in December 2021 during which deliverables by UCAA and Defence ministry were agreed.

 However, the procedures dragged until last Saturday when the UPDF began the engineering works in the aftermath of our exposé and a RwandAir plane careering off the runway.

 New questions emerged on why, during the runway upgrade, the base of surrounding land was not compacted as required under ICAO annex 14, why the airport still has one runway and why the main runway lacks centreline lighting crucial to guide plane landing alongside the runway edge lights.

 In the September 2021 meeting, ministers zeroed on the army because its Shs24.8b quotation was Shs5.4b less than the amount asked for the same engineering works by the lowest bidding private company.

 UCAA Director General Bamwesigye had offered us access to runway 17/35, but it was called off due to expected landing at the airport of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who flew in for the first time in four years of frosty relations between his country and Uganda.

 In yesterday’s interview, Mr Bamwesigye said MP Mugema was rendering an opinion on UPDF engineering works prematurely.

 “Surely, for me to continue answering to the whims of people who are negative … I do not know why they are negative,” he said of the MP and our other sources.

 He added: “It is true that there are certain facilities we are still working on because our money has not been forthcoming. We had wanted to complete the extensions, but the airport was closed due to Covid-19 and when it reopened, we never got enough passengers to beef up our revenue projections.”

  The engineering brigade has expertise in construction, Mr Bamwesigye said, and the army is finishing work, not undertaking major structural work, and under supervision of Ssentoogo and Partners as consultants.

 The UPDF’s entry into the job was a result of “orders from above”, the UCAA chief exectiive added.

 “At first, we were bidding the project, but government, at a higher level, said we should use the UPDF because it had given us some money to complete work. The contractor had completed the phase of activities and we were stuck because we did not have money. So, the UPDF bid indicated a low cost of construction than the other team. [The] government told us to supervise the UPDF closely, which we are doing,” he said.

 Things appeared well at Entebbe airport until last Wednesday when the skidding off the runway of RwandAir Flight WB464 during a heavy downpour opened up the country’s only international airport to tighter scrutiny following conflicting accounts of the cause of the incident.

 Uganda Civil Aviation Authority (UCAA) has blamed the runway excursion on bad weather, an explanation which raises questions since world over, planes have taken off and landed in worse weather.

 Our investigations are now pointing to something different – a poorly marked, smooth-surfaced runway which offers decelerating planes smooth gliding after they have touched down, rather than the much-needed friction.


In 2015, Uganda got a $200m (Shs706.4b) loan from the Export and Import (EXIM) Bank of China for the upgrade and expansion of Entebbe International Airport. The first phase of the design, build, and transfer project executed by China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) ran from 2015 to May 2021.

 The scope of the project included constructing a new cargo centre, a new passenger terminal building, strengthening and expanding the runway and associated aprons and taxiways, and fixing the domestic water supply at the airport.

 Runway 17/35, the main runway, was handed over to UCAA late last year. However, problems surfaced immediately after the handover.

 Political supervisors briefed on the matters said UCAA in February 2022 flagged the quality concerns about the completed work quality to John Macdonald, the team leader at Dar Al Hadassah, the supervising consultant for the project.

Faulty runway?

 According to the source, the markings --- signs usually in yellow and white hues showing runway outline --- were poorly done, meaning pilots may fail to correctly and safely navigate landing aircrafts, leading to accident.

 UCAA also asked the consultant to ensure that runway 17/35, the main runway at Entebbe International Airport, should have complete longitudinal section and cross section layout.

 A similar concern about poor quality work was flagged about markings and signs on taxiways A1, A3, and B, which define the edges of the taxiway and provide visual identification.

 It is also alleged that the design and construction render the runway not to drain quickly after a downpour, but instead retains water, making the runway surface slipper.

 This, according to aviation experts who spoke to us on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, landing planes are more likely to glide on the already smoothened surface, making aircraft control harder for pilots.

Besides the newly-surfaced runway 17/35, the airport has a smaller runway 12/30 to handle small aircraft and sources familiar noted that the highlighted problems present safety threats for flights to Entebbe airport.

 Mr Vianney Luggya, UCAA’s manager for public affairs, in an interview with this newspaper rubbished these claims, insisting the runway meets international standards.

 “We do not have any problem with the runway. At the time the complaint about markings that you cite was raised, the runway works were yet to be completed so the runway had temporary markings, and this had been communicated to airlines. Currently, the runway is fully complete with permanent markings, renewable every six months. All taxiways have detailed pavement markings,” he said.

 Our investigations showed that a Emirates Airlines pilot on October 14, 2021 lodged a complaint in which he detailed the new runway presented safety risks. The pilot indicated that the runway surface accumulates rubber quickly compared to the old surface, which poses landing safety risks.

 According to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), on average, an aircraft leaves about 700g of rubber on the runway when it touches down.

 Periodic removal of this rubber is necessary because it can cause a loss of surface friction on the runway, making it slippery when wet and posing a threat to landing aircraft.

 The pilot also complained that the Automatic Terminal Information Service (ATIS), the system that provides real-time physical environment situation on the ground to pilots, was not updated frequently.

 The implication, the pilot noted, was that critical information that pilots needed for safe landing and take-off could be missed.

The pilot also cited the absence of visual approach slope indicator system and precision approach path indicator.

 In the interview for this article, Mr Luggya said the ATIS was functioning normally and updated every half-an-hour.

 “The (pilot’s) report alluded to was one of the routine reports that assist UCAA to improve on services,” he said, without offering further explanation.

 Since a RwandAir careered off runway 17/35 last week, the airport temporarily halted operations and no aircraft lifted from the facility in about 24 hours.

 When flights were cleared after the stricken plane was pull out from the grassland at nearly 1am, the outbound flight of the first plane schedule to depart – Turkish Airlines – delayed amid downpour to day-break.

 A source said some Uganda Airlines and Kenya Airways planes tried to take flights, but were stopped.

 It is alleged that the design and construction of the runway renders it to accumulate water on the surface, presenting traction problems.

 According to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), runway surfaces are constructed with one end being slightly higher or lower, so that water can drain off.

According to Mr Luggya, the runway meets international standards.

 “Runway 17/35 is fully compliant in terms of longitudinal and transverse slopes. It is also well equipped with navigation aids, including serviceable Precision Path Indicators (PAPIs),” he said, adding, “In relation to (the bad weather) it is standard practice for the airport to provide information to air operators regarding the runway conditions and it is the responsibility of the pilot/air operator to decide on whether to operate.”

Cargo centre problems

 The construction on the new cargo centre started in the fourth quarter of 2017 and was completed in the fourth quarter of 2019 at a cost of $20m (Shs70.6b).

 Cargo handlers at the airport (DAS and NAS) shifted to the new facility, but found out that the facility was not well suited for their operations.

 For instance, the new cargo centre space is reportedly smaller than the older version built in 1997, its cold rooms inadequate and not positioned according to expected standards and regulations.

 Interestingly, UCCA and the government have injected an additional $3.4m (Shs12b) to correct these errors in the new cargo centre. However, under Clause 5.8 of the FIDIC design and build contract, any error is supposed to be the responsibility of the contractor, making it unclear why the aviation regulator offered to shoulder the burden.

 UCAA had explained that the additional investment was to make changes in compliance with European Union (EU) regulations which came into effect on June 1, 2017, at least three months before the first phase of the Entebbe International Airport upgrade started.

 It remained unclear why the refurbishment plan was not adjusted before engineering works commenced.

 Our investigations show that TriStar has been contracted to do the remedial works on the new cargo unit, the fuel hydrants, and new apron extensions at $3.5m (Shs12.3b). Insiders said the original contractor, China Communication Construction Company (CCCC), should have rectified the works

Missing consultant

 According to high-level government officials briefed on the matter, the questions about the quality of the airport upgrade work has been linked to lack of full-time supervision by Dar Al Hadassah, the consultant. The company was contracted at $11.4 million (Shs40.2b).   UCAA spokesman Vianney Luggya confirmed that Mr McDonald left Entebbe in April 2020 before the runway works began in May 2020.

 “I do not know why [the consultant] left. When you say we engaged him about quality concerns on the project, how could we raise those concerns when he left before the upgrade began?” he wondered.

 On his part, Director General Bamwesigye said there has not been any high-level engagement between the regulator and the consultant as our corroborated inquiries revealed.

 “I have not heard anyone talking about the quality of that work in our board. If you say high-level, maybe you also mean me (sic). Because, these are instructions I always give. We cannot pay before we check the work. This is day-to-day supervision and that cannot amount to questioning the quality of the work. After all, the Auditor General has been here and seen those facilities. Not once has he questioned the quality of work,” he says.

 When this newspaper contacted Dar Al Hadassah on phone, an architect with the company named Martha said she had been advised not to speak to us.

 “Since we handed over that runway, I have been advised that you should speak to [UCAA Spokesman] Vianney. I cannot answer anything else,” she said.

 In February, CCCC requested for a two-year extension of the upgrade and expansion of Entebbe Airport to the end of 2024. Mr Li Qinpu, the project manager, was reported out of the country when we tried to contact him for explanation on the allegations.