| Gyagenda Semakula Zikusooka | I woke up at 3:30am on Wednesday, August 28, 2019 and made up to be able to catch my flight to Nairobi. My only reason for this trip was to be one of the very first commercial travelers of the revamped Uganda Airlines; a day after it took to the skies on its official launch to the same destination.
This is indisputably the first commercial flight in two decades as the national carrier embarks on a long journey to register its presence among global competitors.
I fumbled with the online booking system which was really unfriendly and I could not easily complete my booking. I called the airline offices. The response was instant. I gave them a tick. I gladly gave my feedback and also made some suggestions. I thought I should be a contributor and not a cynic; especially if the love for your country is not prompted and conditional.
The unfriendly system eventually gave me a reservation confirmation; QRDHVR. I again called the office to ask for easier and quicker payment options. They were several and I chose the cash option. I went to the airline office at the airport and paid US$277.20 (Shs1,053,000).
Just before departure on Wednesday morning, I went to the same office where I enquired from a staff who introduced herself as Rosemary, how many we were. She joyfully and with a very big smile said “you are seven onboard.”
I imagined who the other six patriotic comrades were! I didn’t ask whether I was the first or seventh passenger to get booked but this was not important. I also learnt later that one of us was booked to fly jambojet but missed the flight and found solace at UR. KQ must have felt terrible here but thank God for the misfortune that enabled a countryman to be written in history and a memoir worth the tale. He made it to the list of the infamous eight.
The excitement started as the airline staff at the check-in counters became so ecstatic and elated to see us. As I approached the counters, the first passengers that I jolted into were Usher Wilson Owere; NOTU Chairman General and his wife Evelyn.
My excitement took another turn because Owere and I are alumni of Tororo College (TC). I joked about it; that TC is “in things”! The feeling was like that of a first time traveler. But yes, we were first time travelers on the mighty Uganda Airlines’ commercial flights. We were led through the immigration to Gate Number 2 for boarding where we found the other passengers. None of us looked at the other the way we do the usual strange passengers in transit. We were all smiles at each other. Everybody seemed surprised at seeing the other. The surprise to my eyes was Alon Mwesigwa and Oliver Nakatudde both journalists working with Uganda Radio Network. They too were surprised to see another journalist who they thought was on official duty. In affirmation, I told them my day’s duty was to show solidarity by supporting my own carrier and exhibit patriotism.
We were led to the CRJ900 Bombardier flight UR202. My intuition immediately drove me into a search on and beneath the seats just to be sure that there are no rats on board. There was none and I predict there will never be any. The beautiful interior and the newness of the aircraft consumed part of me for some moments. How I wish we can jealously guard and maintain it in that shape.
The seventy-six seating capacity aircraft has twelve business class seats that were not booked for this flight. All the eight passengers were booked in economy class. We were welcomed on board by flight attendants Kasemire Roni, Johnson Mugume and flight purser (chief flight attendant) Asiimwe Neema. As is the aviation tradition, we heeded to the usual flight instructions in very clear and audible English by one of the crew members shortly before take-off.
As a Pan Africanist, I did not miss any of my cherished native languages for the first time. I was gratified and contented with the instructions in English. I only wish they could integrate Kiswahili for us East Africans because the on board safety cards and other writings in the aircraft are bi-lingual.
Captain Charles Karabarinde assisted by First Officer Denis Chotum shortly taxied to the run way at 6:05am. History was recorded at 6:13am when the tires of the CRJ900 got off the run way at take-off. The other crew members were First Officers Tina Drazu and Cheboy Rashid who were on flight in training and carrying out observations. The passengers onboard included Workers’ leader Usher Wilson Owere, his wife Evelyn, Emmanuel Kwezi Tabaaro, businessmen Joseph Kasigazi and Peter Ssenkungu and journalists Gyagenda Semakula, Alon Mwesigwa and Oliver Nakatudde who all paid for their return air tickets.
The usually short air trip to Nairobi was smooth with a tail push. We were served with the expected Ugandan cuisine of Jesa yoghurt, Wavah water; specifically bottled for Uganda Airlines, bread, coffee, fruit salads and Lato butter. The teabags and juices (Pick n Peel) were the Kenyan brands on board. I did not probe into why we did not have Mukwano, Kayonza or Uganda Tea or our own Cheers of Delight Uganda.
As a stakeholder and now supporter of the carrier, I will request to know why these did not merit. Nevertheless, this could not kill our experience and joy of being the first fliers at an altitude of 33,000ft high.
The smooth touch-down at exactly 7am aroused an equivocal applause from the passengers on this historic maiden commercial flight that touched the ground five minutes ahead of its scheduled landing at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Businessman Kasigazi in a very loud voice announced, “Bombadier has arrived.”
We were all thrilled and clapped to show how excited we were. The crew too could not hide their excitement for this achievement. The next voice we heard was from the cockpit when the pilot announced to us the welcome custom of a water salute that happens whenever a plane is making a maiden flight at a particular airport. It happened as we slowly taxied on the run way. Another memorable experience!