Can Uganda Airlines do well where others made losses and went bust?

Author, Musaazi Namiti. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • Uganda Airlines is trying to succeed where failure is almost as certain as death.   

My first flight to Europe was by Alliance Air, which was a joint venture between Uganda, South Africa and Tanzania. It is safe to assume that people who remember the airline are those who flew it or worked for it because it has been decades since it collapsed. 

It began operations with a Boeing 747SP that belonged to South African Airways, which had a controlling stake of 40 percent, the remainder split between Tanzania and Uganda. South African Airways took the controlling stake in part because of the instrumental role it had performed in forming the airline and training personnel. 

But it did not take long for the three countries to realise that although Alliance Air’s Boeing took off and landed many times, the business itself was struggling to take off. Air Tanzania and Uganda Airlines pulled out of the agreement that led to the airline’s formation — and South African Airways stopped funding the business in October 2000, citing losses totalling $50m.

At the time, Uganda Airlines — not the revived one led by embattled Jennifer Bamuturaki — was knee-deep in financial difficulties and teetering on the brink of collapse. In fact, the following year, Cabinet approved its liquidation after negotiations to get South African Airways to buy it came to grief.

The failures in the aviation industry date back to East African Airways, which was a brainchild of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Since then, not a single major airline in the East African region, and much of Africa, with the exception of Ethiopian Airlines, has been managed profitably.

In 2002, Africa One took to the skies and was managed by people who had worked for Uganda Airlines and Alliance Air. One notable example is Frederick Ochieng-Obbo who was Uganda Airlines corporation secretary and went on to work as chief executive for Africa One. 

Sadly, Africa One, whose colourful launch at Entebbe International Airport was attended by President Museveni, who even had a joy flight in one of the airline’s aircraft, collapsed. Like Alliance Air, it is probably remembered only by people who worked for it — or journalists who wrote stories about its launch. 

In 2004, East African Airlines tried to fill the vacuum created by Uganda Airlines. Benedict Mutyaba, a former Makindye East MP and the only successful manager Uganda Airlines has had, was the driving force behind the airline. Because of his track record at Uganda Airlines, which he headed when he was in his late 20s, many thought that Mr Mutyaba would run a successful airline. But East African Airlines failed as soon as it was launched. 

Air Uganda is another carrier lying in the aviation graveyard. It had been around for years and appeared to soldier on, but it eventually closed. In Africa, if airlines are not making losses, they are collapsing — even when they have been around for decades.

A little more than two decades ago, a multi-national airline called Air Afrique officially ceased operations, although it had been in business for 40 years. Air France had taken over its management, but it failed to pull it out of the crisis as losses piled on losses. Eleven nations could not save it.
The latest casualty is Namibia Air, which was liquidated in 2021.

It will be hard for the Bamuturaki-led Uganda Airlines to beat steep odds and succeed, which is not to say it is impossible. Uganda Airlines is trying to succeed where failure is almost as certain as death. Ms Bamuturaki will need exceptional managerial skills to turn things around. Will she succeed? Only time will tell. 

Mr Musaazi Namiti is a journalist and former Al Jazeera digital editor in charge of the Africa desk
[email protected]    @kazbuk


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