General Katumba Wamala, Uganda’s Minister of Works and Transport shared with Nnyonyi Magazine his views about Uganda’s air transport sector and strategies for pulling it out of Covid-19 impacts. Excerpts
Hon. Minister, Where does the government place air transport in the national development agenda?
Air transport is one of the main drivers of the economy, something more pronounced in countries such as Uganda which earn a lot of money from tourism. We see the industry as an enabler of other sectors. Those were some of the questions we used to have about investing in a national carrier. Some people wondered why government should invest in an airline, which in their view was not going to make money. While it is true that the airline may not immediately make profit of its own, it triggers other sectors of the economy and tourism is one of those sectors which benefit directly. It also moderates the pricing for air services in the country. And when tourists are sure of the means to come in and get out of the country, they will have more confidence to visit. So, like other infrastructure that is being developed, the airline industry is a key driver of other sectors.
Just like the rest of the world, Uganda went into lockdown in March 2020 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. What have been the impacts of the closure of Entebbe International Airport and the suspension of flights by Uganda Airlines?
There have been two or three major impacts. Covid-19 was a big blow to the airline industry. more so to Uganda Airlines which was just starting. We were just picking up when we had to scale back operations to almost zero, which was bad to say the least. When you look at the airport which was receiving on average 52 flights a day, the drop to almost zero was huge.
However, the disruption was also a wakeup call which has helped us to upgrade some of the facilities at the airport. When you go to Entebbe now and you look at the re-modelling and modifications that have been done, possibly we would not have invested in them if it was not for Covid-19. In a way therefore, the crisis has helped us to up our game and put in place some of the facilities we would have otherwise taken for granted. So, there have been both positive and negative impacts but the negative was bigger because of the sharp drop in traffic.
It is also necessary to come to terms with the fact that the negative impacts may linger on for a while because it will take time for people to regain the confidence to travel. We had thought that now that we have reopened the airport, traffic would pick up but a second Covid-19 wave in Europe makes that uncertain. It will take time before a sustained recovery of the industry takes place.
Putting all that into consideration, what strategies has the government employed to smoothen the recovery of the industry in Uganda?
When a boxer gets knocked down, he lifts himself up and continues the fight. Likewise, when Covid-19 struck, we went down but we have decided that we shouldn’t stay down. First, we have put in place the provisions and measures at the airport which would make travelers feel comfortable that the airport is safe for outbound and inbound passengers. We have started by restoring the regional flights with Uganda Airlines and we have already reactivated the major routes. Mogadishu, Nairobi, Mombasa, Juba and Dar es salaam are active and we are about to activate Kinshasa. Slowly by slowly, we want to get back to the skies and encourage people to fly. These actions should help us get back to the level we were at before March, 2020.
When is Kinshasa (DRC) likely Exchange traffic with Entebbe?
We are just completing a few formalities but we think Kinshasa should exchange traffic with Entebbe by the end of the year?
Has the pandemic impacted funding for Uganda Airlines in any way?
The budget for the airline has been available throughout because it had been ringfenced. That is why we were able to get back to the skies the moment the airspace was opened up. The only impacts so far have been on the original revenue projections and business assumptions.
The Airport has been undergoing expansion since 2015. When do you expect the new facilities to be available to the public?
Some of them are already available. Technically, the new Cargo Centre is more or less ready and we just need to commission it. When it opens, we shall have four times the storage capacity of the old facility which could accommodate just 25,000 tons of cargo.
One of the Runways is ready and we are left with the new parking bay. We are now moving into Phase 2 of the expansion and that is what will take some time because it involves breaking down the old Cargo Centre and replacing it with a new passenger terminal building and additional parking bays for aircraft.
What is the status of the special purpose airport that is designed to serve the oil and gas industry in Hoima?
Works are progressing well. We are about 45% done. Actually, in case of an emergency, one can now land there (Hoima) because the tarmac is ready.
Now that we are transitioning into an oil economy, are public expectations for lower air fares feasible?
We think so. When the refinery is finally operational, Aviation fuel will be one of the products coming out of there so we expect the cost of Jet A-1 to go down. With lower operational costs for airlines, the ticket prices should go down especially for our home-based airlines. That should provide a catalyst for growth of air travel in Uganda.
What is the status of the East African Single, especially given President Museveni’s expressed desire to see the revival of a pan-East African airline? Do you see that happening in the near term?
That is still sometime away because many times, when we talk about East Africa, the concept looks good and appears to make sense to everybody. However, when we return to our individual countries and offices, the regional aspect tends to get lost. It will take time for some of these ideas to take off.
Uganda was not among the early adopters when the idea of SAATM spill out was floated and acceded to by some countries in January 2018. Now that we have a national airline, are we likely to see the country join others in signing up to African open skies?
I don’t see any impediments to that. We should not have much reservations about that.
December is around the corner and the promised date for the arrival of the first A330 is close. Is the delivery still on course?
We are on course and nothing has changed. We made the final payment on the aircraft a few weeks ago. The first aircraft will come in December and the second will follow in January 2021. We took advantage of the Covid-19 lockdown to catch up on a number of things.
We knew that at one time the industry would pick up so we have continued with setting up the airline for the subsequent phases of development in its business plan. We have also been able to attract a number of well qualified Ugandan pilots who have expressed a desire to come back home now that we have a home-based airline.
What is your message to stakeholders in the air transport sector?
While the scare is there, we shouldn’t freeze and fear to travel by air because Covid-19 maybe here for years. For as long as the airlines and airports can put in place arrangements to ensure safe travel the public should overcome their fear and travel.