The Coronavirus disease was announced on March 2020 by the World Health Organization as a pandemic, making a turning point for the global civil aviation and public health systems of constituent populations across the world. In Uganda, like elsewhere, the international airport was closed, national carrier ceased operations and several projects scaled down. Nnyonyi Magazine caught up with Uganda Civil Aviation Authority’s Ag. Director General, Mr. Fred Bamwesigye for his take impact of Covid-19 on Uganda’s aviation industry. Below are excerpts of the interview:
How is the disruption caused by Covid-19 likely to affect traffic?
In the period 2017 to 2020, international passenger traffic grew at an annual rate of 8.86%, surpassing the earlier anticipated growth of 7.5% for the medium term. The growth trends in passenger traffic were grossly impacted by the Corona Virus pandemic that crippled passenger flight movements across the globe.
Uganda suspended international passenger flights on March 22, 2020. Even before the suspension in the first part of 2020, there was a 60% drop in operations owing to COVID-19 precautionary measures by airlines and passengers.
After resumption of operations, the airport recorded about 42,000 international passengers in October 2020, an average of 1400 passengers per day in comparison to 5400 pax per day in 2019. This has a tremendous impact on revenues for the industry.
Given that passenger operations were down to almost zero, what have been the impact on UCAA’s bottom line?
While the airport has been closed to commercial flight operations, Government through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs approved various evacuation and repatriation flights to Uganda. They were facilitated together with cargo and other emergency flights. Most of UCAA revenue is generated from commercial passenger operations. Suspension of commercial flights this negatively impacted our revenue.
What lessons have you drawn from this and how is it shaping plans for the future?
Stakeholder engagement in times of crisis is key. During the period when commercial passenger flights were suspended, the Authority held various constructive engagements with stakeholders. The Authority worked closely with them to develop Standard Operating Procedures to guard against the spread of Covid-19 through air travel. Important recommendations were adopted.
We have for instance introduced glass shields at Immigration and check-in counters to protect frontline staff is reducing direct contact with travellers while handling passenger travel documents.
Boarding lounges have been reconfigured by removing partitions so as to have open boarding lounges that will provide more seating space in the terminal to observe social distancing.
To minimize congestion at peak hour, we have revised the flight schedules by increasing on the interval time between flights to match the available facilities.
We are also limiting the number of meeters and greeters, by emphasizing the pick and drop of passengers to avoid crowds at the airport. The few that are allowed to access the airport observe the Standard Operating Procedures in place.
What are the passenger and cargo traffic projections for Entebbe International Airport following the pandemic disruptions?
Previous international passenger projections had been surpassed, which is an indicator of good performance and continued demand for air transport services. In relation to international passengers, the 2019 projections were while the 2018 traffic projections were surpassed by 3%. On the part of cargo, 98% performance was recorded in relation to imports and 85% in relation to exports in 2019. The 2020 projections will certainly not be met owing to the COVID-19 impact.
The ongoing expansion works will take the airport’s capacity to 3 million passengers per year. Given the current growth trajectory, what are the plans for the day after 3 million pax and how soon is that milestone likely to come?
According to projections in the National Aviation Master Plan, Entebbe is likely to reach 3 Million passengers in 2025 By then, Kaabale International Airport will be complete and is expected to share some of the traffic. In addition, Phase II of the upgrade and expansion of EIA is expected to further enhance Entebbe’s capacity.
Entebbe International Airport has a home-based carrier in Uganda Airlines, how do you plan to accommodate it and the new traffic it is likely to generate?
The commencement of Uganda Airlines operations in August saw an increase in commercial air traffic for Entebbe. To ably facilitate the national airlines’ operations, a big part of the top concession floor for the Terminal building’s extension has been dedicated to Uganda Airlines. Other requirements will be met as its operations pick.
Uganda does not have an alternative airport to Entebbe, what are the mid-to long-term plans for aerodrome development?
In the 20 Year National Aviation Master Plan, several upcountry airports are planned for upgrade to regional and international status. We will approach the upgrades in a phased manner to suit the available budget.
UCAA plans to upgrade Arua to a category 4C a regional and international Airport. A category 4C airport is able to handle jet aircraft of B737-500 series. UCAA is negotiating with investors for the upgrade under the Public private Partnership (PPP) arrangement. The Master Plan and Engineering designs are complete.
The Authority undertook master plan studies and developed engineering designs for upgrade of Kasese Airport. Land for expansion of the Airport was also acquired.
Kasese will be upgraded from code 2B airport to an international Airport at code 4C, with a paved Runway, Taxiways, Apron and other facilities.
The Authority plans to improve Gulu to code 4E airport to be one of the alternates to Entebbe International Airport. A code 4E airport is capable of handling B747-400 series. Master plan studies and detailed engineering designs for the upgrade of Gulu Airport are ready. The Authority has also acquired land for the expansion of the Airport.
IATA is predicting a rebound to 2019 traffic levels from 2022-23, do you see Uganda and East Africa following a similar recovery path?
Air travel has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and it is going to take a few years to recover. New requirements for COVID-19 PCR tests are all adding to the cost of travel and inconvenience yet that is necessary for the enhancement of safety. Not many people are likely to travel in the first years of lifting travel restrictions.