Flying Uganda – Special report on airline industry

The country’s airline industry has experienced steady growth but its future remains uncertain.

It was before the plane even taxied to the runway that the trouble started. We were on our way to one of Uganda’s small murram-covered airfields on a local carrier. Then out from under the seat beside me, a cockroach peeked out his head before unceremoniously scurrying across the empty seat only to disappear again. I glanced up at an American sitting across from me who had apparently seen it as well. “There are roaches on the plane?” he exclaimed. We both nervously laughed it off and the remainder of the flight was incident free.

Flying in Uganda used to be an adventure. Getting to far-flung airports like Arua or Moroto was difficult and usually meant you had to charter a plane. But today, much of Uganda and the region is readily accessible through local and regional carriers.

Airlines like Eagle Air and new providers like Air Uganda are offering reasonably-priced flights to anywhere from Mombasa to Mbarara. And apart from unforeseen complications like a small unwelcome guest or a bumpy landing, most flights are comfortable and run on time. With more and more airlines landing at Entebbe International Airport (EBB) each year, Uganda is making strides to become a regional hub in East Africa. Well almost.

Welcome to Entebbe

Since the initiation of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in 1991, the number of passengers going through EBB has increased almost eight fold from 118,000 to 956,000 passengers in 2009.

This, according to the CAA Public Affairs Manager Mr, Ignie Igunduura, is a sign that the airline industry is growing steadily. “We had nine international airlines landing at Entebbe in 1991 and today there are 19,” he said.

Igunduura attributed much of this growth to the professionalism and capacity of the CAA to handle international safety and security standards. This, along with political stability and a growing economy, has created an environment conducive to the expansion of the industry in Uganda and to more passengers.

“Of course almost one million passengers a year is nothing to talk about because some international airports do those figures in a matter of weeks, but according to our local standards, that is a historical achievement,” he added.

In order to accommodate the large number of VIPs scheduled to visit Uganda for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), the government embarked on an multi- billion shilling plan to update, upgrade and expand the airport in 2007.

While there is still dispute into how the money was spent, most local passengers are happy that their only airport now has the look and feel of an international airport. However, many of these same passengers are complaining that not much has been improved or even maintained since CHOGM ended almost three years ago.

The CAA disputes this and cites the opening of new routes to Entebbe as proof that the airport still maintains its international standards. The newest catch is Turkish Airlines which is scheduled to start flights to Uganda this year. But while the growth has been steady, Igunduura admits that without a strong home- based airline to feed flights into the country, it will be hard to impossible for Uganda to become a significant regional hub like Nairobi or Addis Ababa.

“Countries like Kenya are benefiting more because their national airline brings passengers from all over the continent to Nairobi from where they connect to different destinations around the world,” he said.

Regional Air

Unfortunately like many things related to Uganda, all that most people remember about the now-defunct Uganda Airlines is the bad. In October 1988, a Uganda Airlines Boeing 707 en route from London crashed about 400 yards short of the runway in Rome, killing 31 of the 52 people on board. There was heavy fog reported in the area at the time of the accident. Plans to restructure the airline followed by privatization failed to resuscitate the carrier. Thirteen years later, the airline went out of business.

For six years, no planes donning the Ugandan flag took off from Entebbe for destinations home or abroad. Then in November 2007, the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (AKFED) launched Air Uganda. With its three new airplanes and pretty Ugandan hostesses, Air Uganda is making a strong move to become the country’s de facto national carrier. Destinations include daily flights to Nairobi and regular flights to Dar Es Salaam, Mombasa, Kigali, Zanzibar and Juba.

According to the company, the airline has experienced steady growth by offering lower prices and better deals for both its leisure and business travellers. It has also benefited from its inherent relationship with other Aga Khan businesses in the region.

“Air Uganda has developed to this level because it is under Aga Khan and it is run together with other investments like Serena Hotels, DTB Bank, and Jubilee Insurance,” said Ms. Desire J.K Barugahare, Marketing and Public Relations Executive for Air Uganda. “But the main reason we have done so well is our prices and our focus on customer service.”

However, a quick search online revealed that a flight from Entebbe to Nairobi on Kenyan Airways would cost $280, the exact same price as a round trip on Air Uganda. Comparing the level of customer service offer by both carriers is not as easy.

Barugahare also added that Air Uganda’s growth is because of its coordination with other international carriers including Brussels Airlines, KLM, British Airlines and Emirates as well as the growth in business travel in the region.

“The increase in the number of business travellers to different cities like Nairobi, Dar es Salaam has also contributed to the development of Air Uganda” said Desire.

Focusing on these high-demand regional routes has been the key to the success of the carrier but the airline is also looking to expand its reach beyond the region into West Africa and even on to the Middle East and Europe. Such steps are necessary for Air Uganda’s plans to help Entebbe become a major regional and local hub.

Flying Local

For flying within Uganda, your best – and usually only – choice is Eagle Air. Based in Entebbe, Eagle has been offering uninterrupted air service in Uganda since 1994. Destinations include Arua, Moyo, Pader, Gulu, and flights to Murchison Falls and Kidepo National Parks.

The airline has a fleet of six planes with a capacity of up to 17 passengers. Eagle also offers some regional flights to Juba and Yei in Southern Sudan and many passengers headed to Eastern Congo utilize the flight to Arua and then drive the remainder of the way rather than come into the country via Kinshasa in the west.

“We have made travel easy and convenient from border to border and within the region,” said Deo Nyanzi, Public Relations Officer for Eagle Air.

In order to effectively compete in the market, Nyanzi said that they have purchased better and faster planes like the Beech Craft 1900 in addition to working hard to keep up the rest of the fleet. But maintaining such high standard in the midst of a global economic crisis has been difficult.

“The credit crunch has been a huge problem for us as passenger numbers have dropped significantly,” said Nyanzi. “Tourists are just not travelling as much as they used to.”

Turbulence ahead?

The major hurdle that the airline industry faces is infrastructure. Since the renovations of Entebbe International Airport for CHOGM, little has changed and some of the paint is even start to chip off the walls.

And there are questions as to whether Uganda can grow into a regional hub without major infrastructure investment from the government. This includes the building of a second runway capable of handling large planes used on international flights. Igunduura of the CAA says that these plans are in the pipeline.

“We have advised government to start planning for another runway at the airport because the population of Uganda is growing at a very fast rate, the economy is picking up and with the prospects of oil, there will definitely be an increase in traffic,” he said.

And like many businesses in Uganda, the airline industry recognizes that being successful requires a fine balance between taking risks and having a sound business strategy. Security issues may arise within the country at any moment making it difficult or impossible for airlines to continue “business as usual”.

By Edward Ronald Sekyewa and Geoffrey Ochwo