Kampala, Uganda | THE INDEPENDENT | Professor Wasswa Balunywa, the former Board Chairman of Uganda Airlines Corporation, says the revived national carrier should focus more on commencing flights to China and not the United Kingdom.
He was responding to media reports that the airline has not yet acquired a permit to fly to London, more than a year after it acquired a landing slot at Heathrow Airport in London. The airline will mark its third year in operation on August 28.
According to its draft 15 year operating and business plan, the airline is expected to be flying to 18 regional destinations namely Lagos, Addis Ababa, Lusaka, and seven international flights to among others Dubai, Guanghzou, Amsterdam, Mumbai, and London. But it is currently flying to ten regional destinations and Dubai is the only international route.
Balunywa, who is the Principal of Makerere University Business School (MUBS), was the board chairman of Uganda Airlines Corporation when it collapsed in 2001. He chaired the board from 1998 to 2001. He says the airline eventually collapsed because it stopped ground handling operations at Entebbe International Airport which had been a cash cow for the airline.
“I used to go to the ministry of finance every week to get subventions for the airline… until it reached a point when I advised the President to close the airline and I gave him my reasons,” Balunywa says.
The government revived the airline in 2018 and it started operating passenger flights on August 28th, 2019. It currently operates ten regional flights namely Nairobi, Juba, Mogadishu, and Dubai as the only international route.
However, the airline anticipates commencing flights to Guangzhou in mid-October. But the airline’s CEO Jenifer Bamuturaki is non-committal on the commencement of London flights.
Balunywa says the London route lacks a market in comparison to Dubai and Asian destinations which attract passengers who are mainly tourists, and business people. He says those routes are also lucrative for cargo operations.
For instance, Uganda’s exports to the United Arab Emirates grew from $300 million US Dollars, about Shs 1.1 Trillion, since diplomatic relations were established in 2009 to $1.85 billion, about Shs 7 Trillion in 2020. These exports are mainly comprised of precious minerals, high-value crops, and labor. According to the Comtrade United Nations International Statistics Database, Uganda exported a total of 5.8Bn US Dollars in 2020, with gold, tea, coffee, cocoa beans and raw sugar as the top exports. The top export destinations were UAE, Kenya, South Sudan and Italy.
Balunywa adds that British Airways stopped operating Entebbe-London flights in 2016 because they were no longer commercially viable.
However Shakira Rahim, the spokesperson of Uganda Airlines, disagrees with Balunywa, saying “The London route is selling like a hot cake because of school children going there, we are exporting agro products like vegetables, pineapples there, flowers and when we drop them in London, they can be carried to the Netherlands and elsewhere so London is a gateway for many things.”
According to the Uganda High Commission in London, Uganda-UK bilateral trade amounted to over £252 million, about 1.1 Trillion Shillings in 2021, while the UK exported about £180m, about 808 Bn Shillings to Uganda.
The mission told our reporter that “there is greater scope for boosting Uganda’s exports to the UK especially if constraints of air cargo/freight logistics and costs as well as ensuring consistency in quality and quantity of products are addressed.”
As a result, the mission is liaising with the ministries of works and transport, Foreign Affairs, Uganda Civil Aviation Authority, and Uganda Airlines management and coordinating with UK aeronautical authorities on the ongoing plans to start direct flights between Entebbe and London.
Exporters led by Thomas Biju of Thomas and Company Limited and Dr. James Kanyije of KK Fresh Produce Exporters Ltd are excited about direct flights to London.
Kanyije says his company which exports about 20 tonnes of fresh fruits and vegetables weekly to London has the capacity to export 250 tonnes every month whenever there are bumper harvests.
He says direct flights will ensure timely delivery of the product, unlike the current situation where they are likely to perish before delivery due to delays.
Biju, whose company exports fresh fruits and vegetables to mainly the Middle East, is urging Uganda Airlines to have the cheapest freight charges at Entebbe Airport so as to attract exporters and eventually increase its revenues from cargo operations.
Balunywa says that the Airline should scale up on marketing the various routes and also signing interline agreements with other airlines such as Emirates to get passengers.