Poor planning haunting Uganda Airlines

Author: Okodan Akwap. PHOTO/FILE.

What you need to know:

Kuwait Airways was backed by petrodollars. Uganda Airlines was backed by loans. They had a clear plan for utilising their aircraft immediately. We had a vague one

Perhaps the oddest story I have heard about the revival of Uganda Airlines was how luxurious jets were purchased for its mid-range and long-haul operations. A source told me that “money was not the issue.” What counted most was that the plane type had to be elegant, luxurious and rare. Meaning that it had to be something no other airline in Africa had!

A taskforce was tasked to search for the dream aircraft. At some point, the taskforce learnt that Kuwait Airways was planning to order eight ultra-modern Airbus A330Neo (new engine option) jets. Our people took a close look at Neo. It was perfect. In July 2018 we placed an order for two, three months before Kuwait Airways did! By May 2019, the total orders for the Neo jets were just 10; Kuwait’s eight and our two. Each plane cost $293 million (about Shs 1.1 trillion).

Kuwait Airways received its first two jets on October 29, 2020. By December 2020, ours were ready. President Museveni commissioned the first one on December 22, 2020 at Entebbe Airport. Kuwait’s first Neo flight was on November 20, 2020 from Kuwait to Dubai. Rapidly, their jets started piercing the skies of the Middle East, Asia and Europe, making money. By contrast, our first scheduled Airbus flight from Entebbe to Dubai was on January 8, 2022, more than a year after taking delivery of the jets! (Understandably, Covid-19 was a contributing factor.)

The ministry of Tourism tweeted gleefully: “She’s back in the skies! 8th January 2022, @UG Airlines resumed its flights to Dubai after the ban on direct passenger services into the United Arab Emirates. Fly the beautiful Crane.” 

Kuwait Airways was backed by petrodollars. Uganda Airlines was backed by loans. They had a clear plan for utilising their aircraft immediately. We had a vague one. In the paper the National Planning Authority presented to the Presidential Economic Council on October 3, 2016, the planned weekly operational summary for flights by the two Airbuses was: London (twice), Brussels (twice), Dubai (six times), Doha (twice), Lagos (twice), Johannesburg (twice), and Mumbai (twice). Two questions: Why is it that the Airbuses now fly only to Dubai four times a week? What really is the true story with the other planned destinations?

I understand Uganda Airlines has applied for slots at Gatwick, UK and Guangzhou, China. However, I hear that the regulators in those countries require us to meet certain regulatory, compliance, and safety requirements. Lesson: An aircraft is not a boda boda motorcycle we are used to riding anyhow. Did the taskforce that revived the airline do adequate research?

Probably not. If they had done that perhaps they would have come up with something similar to what a taskforce in Nigeria has just prodded the government there to do. On September 24, the federal government of Nigeria announced that it had selected a consortium led by Ethiopian Airlines to help organise and launch its new flag carrier. With a 49 percent stake, Ethiopian Airlines becomes the majority shareholder for Nigeria Air. It will now begin the recruitment process for pilots, engineers, cabin crew, etc.

Commenting on this development, a Kampala-based air transport regulation consultant told me: “This is what our government should have done. Let an airline that has been around for a while and has experience operating profitably, become a shareholder and help you launch your airline.”

Clearly, poor planning is haunting Uganda Airlines. And we seem to have forgotten why Uganda Airlines was founded by the government of Idi Amin in early 1976 before the East African Community collapsed in 1977.

 Perhaps the government desired a lifeline to the world in the event that Kenya and Tanzania denied Uganda access to the sea. So, the airline was set up for survival in a landlocked economy. That’s why the fleet included two Boeing 707 aircraft with big bellies for carrying cargo. Earlier in 1975, Uganda bought a Hercules C-130 cargo plane from Lockheed Martins, an American company.

We are currently upgrading Entebbe Airport’s cargo centre using a $200 million (Shs 760 billion) loan from China’s Exim Bank. In my view, the plans for upgrading Entebbe Airport and reviving Uganda Airlines should have been syncronised.

Akwap (PhD) is an associate consultant at Uganda Management Institute.

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