COVID-19 dents Entebbe progress
No date has been set for re-opening. But the public has been exerting pressure on UCAA to re-open the airport. Local tourism players have already asked the government to consider re-opening the airport, saying it is the main gateway into Uganda and an enabler for recovery of all sectors in the economy, including the tourism industry.
Pearl Hoareau Kakooza, the president of the Uganda Tourism Association (UTA), noted recently that there is immediate need to re-open the airport to mitigate the negative impact already imposed on the sector.
Kakooza advised the Ministry of Works and Transport and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to fast track the standard operating procedures (SOPs). “The continued closure without a foreseeable date of re-opening is a danger to the economy, businesses, employees’ livelihoods and a big loss to the country,” she said.
Richard Mujjuzi, the chairperson of the Uganda Association of Travel Agents also noted recently that the government should set up a tentative date for the re-opening of Entebbe to enable travelers schedule their bookings to Uganda.
Yogi Biriggwa, the board chairperson of the Airlines Association of Uganda appealed to the government to at least introduce 2-3 flights per week for the aviation industry. Biriggwa said the government delay to re-open the airspace for commercial flights could push some airlines out of business. “COVID-19 is here to stay; we only need to learn how to stay with it,” she said.
Martha Nansamba, the head of Forever Africa Safari, a local tour and safari agency recently told The Independent that Uganda’s tourism sector will only get back when Entebbe Airport alongside Jomo Kenyatta in Nairobi and Kigali open.
Last month, the East African Business Council (EABC) called upon the East African Community countries to resume commercial flights. Tanzania resumed international flights on May 18, while chartered flights in Rwanda resumed on June 18. Kenya opened domestic travel on July 15 while international flights resumed on Aug.1.
But, in his most recent COVID-19 related address to the nation, President Museveni said “Entebbe Airport would remain closed until the situation abroad settles down.”
As of Aug.10, Uganda was one of 25 African countries whose border points including the airports are still closed according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control.
UCAA officials say traffic (passengers) at Entebbe Airport had been growing steadily over the years. Last year, Entebbe Airport saw 1.98 million passengers go through its gates; a 7.6% increase from the 2018 figure of 1.84 million. The year before, Entebbe Airport had served about 1.65 million passengers.
Basing on these numbers, the airport authorities were ready to see at least two million travelers depart, arrive or go through the airport this year. But, from the current projections, that will not happen.
Passenger traffic in January, this year, had showed good signs of a good year with about 150,000 travelers’ passports stamped, but that number fell by 7.1% in February to about 140,000. That is when the impact of the lockdowns started being felt, Luggya told The Independent. By April, passenger traffic had fallen to a paltry 987 passengers.
Although not as drastic, cargo operations have not done well either. Entebbe Airport registered about 62,000 metric tonnes of cargo in the whole of 2019. It appears the airport may not get similar volumes of cargo this year. According to data from Entebbe Handling Services Ltd (ENHAS), fish, fruits and vegetables are the major products that are exported exclusively by air.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the aviation industry due to travel restrictions and slumps in demand among travelers. The latest figures from IATA estimated that the airline industry has so far lost US$ 419bn of revenue globally due to the reduced number of passengers and has estimated that full pre-COVID-19 recovery shall happen in 2024.
Before COVID-19, close to 32,000 aircraft movements (landing and take-off) were being registered at Entebbe Airport every year. Every day, there were 90-120 flights out of Entebbe. But when passenger operations were suspended, flight handlers started seeing between 7-14 flights every day, mainly cargo aircraft.
Since the closure of business at the airport, about 8000 staff attached to UCAA and several private companies including; DAS Handling Limited and ENHAS have been hit hard.
Going forward, Luggya says, more protocols and SoPs will come along the way. Luggya told The Independent that UCAA itself more than anyone else wants Entebbe Airport to open. But even as it works with other government agencies to resume operations, it is cognizant of what is happening in other countries.
He says unlike other government agencies, the Uganda Civil Aviation Authority gets all its revenue from the airport operations. Luggya told The Independent that on average the airport operations (passenger service charges, landing charges and parking charges) rake in about Shs 20bn a month but in each of the first two months of the lockdown (March and April), UCAA collected a paltry Shs 1bn.
“The airport and airlines are actually among those that are looking forward to the reopening of the airport.”
“Although an official date is yet to be announced, we are working towards re-opening,” Luggya said, adding that, “Uganda has had a calculated approach to opening up various sectors of the economy.”