As the debate on whether the newly revived national carrier, Uganda Airlines will manage to soar over the very competitive aviation industry within the region and the continent, some players in the sector say focus should not only be placed on the airline’s profitability.
On Tuesday, Uganda’s President, Yoweri Museveni officially received the two Bombardier CRJ900 jetliners that will be part of the Uganda Airlines’ initial fleet.
The planes touched down at Entebbe Airport amid excitement although a section of the public is skeptical about the future prospects of an airline that has been defunct for 18 years.
Government says the revival of Uganda Airlines is in line with Uganda’s Vision 2040, which sets the long-term aspirations of transforming Uganda from predominantly peasant to a modern and prosperous country within 30 years.
Last year in December, Cabinet approved the business and implementation plan for the airline having assessed the viability of the investment. Government is looking to tap into Uganda’s thriving tourism sector to attract travelers as well as the business community and Ugandan diaspora traveling within the region and beyond.
“We are going to work with other subsidiary companies to do our own handling, catering, all those will be servicing the airline,” Minister for Works and Transport, Monica Ntege Azuba told reporters, expressing optimism that the airline will grow regardless of the expected huddles (like low passenger volumes) that could characterize initial operations.
In 2018, the Minister revealed that based on the drafted business plan, it will take Uganda Airlines a period of 4 to 5 years to break even from the time it is operational.
During the ceremony to receive the two Bombardiers, Robert Wakhweya the Captain of A350 Qatar Airways who is the only Ugandan in the Asian airline, told SoftPower News that the revival of Uganda’s national carrier is a great development.
“It’s a very joyous occasion to have our own airline after almost 25years. We are really proud. It’s been very hard. Most Ugandans like myself and Mike Etiang (chief pilot of Uganda Airlines) have been out there because we had nothing back home. But you know, your profession has to continue,” Captain Wakhweya said.
Asked what Uganda needs to do to match the human resource standards as those of the leading airlines, he said; “We have the crew, it’s only that they are outside the country and we didn’t have an airline back home. So, most of them have to come back”.
Wakhweya is part of the team that has been working behind the scenes in the process to revive Uganda Airlines. He has been flying for 25 years years, 8 of which he has been with Qatar Airways.
He says that running an airline is not only about making profits.
“Running an airline gives people jobs. Running an airline makes children dream. When you have a 10-year-old who says ‘I want to be a pilot’, he has a dream because he can see an airline”.
“But if you have nothing in your country, how will the kids dream? So, you have to look at it in two ways. Making a profit, Yes. But sometimes it’s more than making money”.
He says that for an airline that is just joining the industry, the initial 5 years are not about making money.
“It’s about developing your country and developing your potential,” he said.
Commenting on whether there is market to provide the much needed traffic, Captain Wakhweya said there is enough traffic at the disposal of Uganda Airlines.
“The CRJs (Bombardiers) are 4 to 5 hours and very efficient at that. So, if you are flying to Nairobi with say 70 passengers, you can not beat this aircraft”
“It (the CRJ900) offers same comfort (as a bigger aircraft), same speed but less cost. And for the longhaul flights, we shall get the Airbus”.
He however cautioned against repeating the mistakes of the past when it comes to management of the revived national flag carrier.
The airline needs to be run in a professional way, he said. He also cited the decision to lease aircrafts as another mistake that hindered the capacity of the airline to break even.
“When you lease an aircraft, you don’t actually own it. On top of trying to make a profit, you’ll have to pay money to the leasers every month (about USD 200,000 if it were Bombardiers) per aircraft. It’s quite hard to make a profit when you are leasing an aircraft,” he said.
On Tuesday, President Museveni said that government has paid cash (using domestic revenue) for the acquisition of the Bombardiers and that the same will be done for the remaining two Bombardiers and two Airbus A330-800 Neos.
Wakhweya urged government to allow the airline to operate in a commercial market as well as to give it it’s own budget and let professionals run it.