My jaw dropped to the floor last week when I heard that government was considering reviving the defunct Uganda Airlines. The argument was that since travellers to Entebbe have increased eightfold since the national carrier was wound up the enterprise has become more viable.
They say that the one thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history.
Why did Uganda Airlines go down in the first place?
It’s a long story but in a nutshell after the collapse of the East African Airways in 1976 each of the three east African countries went it alone creating their own national carriers. Kenya had headstart as it retained most of the planes, Uganda was in the throes of the Idi Amin’s regime and never caught any traction, limping on with less than a handful of routes. A selloff its lucrative ground handling services at Entebbe Airport and a bungled privatization process finally forced government to put it out of its misery at the beginning of the last decade.
Since then several government back private airlines have been launched only to collapse spectacularly when the reality of the industry hit them. Air Uganda backed by the Aga Khan is doing much better and is probably our best chance – in the long term, of being our de facto national carrier.
British billionaire Richard Branson once said “If you want to be a millionaire start with a billion dollars and launch a new airline.”
Given the reality on the ground it’s hard to justify the billions of dollars the government would have to pour into an airline to make it viable.
An airlines biggest assets are the routes it flies, the more lucrative the better.
Entebbe airport last year did about 1.5 million passengers that is less than half the amount of traffic that was done on the London-New York route. Entebbe’s passengers are serviced by 20 airlines.
For Uganda Airlines to be viable it would have to compete with British Airways on the London route, Emirates on the Dubai route, Kenya Airways and Air Uganda on the Nairobi route and the list goes on and on.
Assuming we took the hair brained decision to resuscitate the carrier the government would be pouring billions of dollars not shillings into a black hole for at least 10 years before we can even break even.
While we are on hair brained ideas a short cut would be to restrict these other airlines from flying into Entebbe so we can support our startup company. Ink is at a premium so we shall not dwell on that ridiculous notion, except to say it will cause irreparable damage to Uganda as an air destination or transit point for travellers.
Why would we want to revive the airline anyway? Some people have this notion that we need a national carrier to direct traffic to our shores, as a marketing tool for the country to the world and that it would serve as symbol of national pride.
All very true but totally taken out of context for Uganda.
To begin with a national carrier is not a perquisite for anything. The US does not have a national airline – state-owned or otherwise, and does not need one to direct traffic to its shores. And as we learnt with the old Uganda Airlines there was a time with their inability to keep time, cancelled flights and plane crashes it did more harm for our image abroad and the same goes with promoting or decimating national pride.
If government is feeling the money is burning its pockets, it would get a better return for its money by upgrading and expanding Entebbe airport to better manage the increased traffic anticipate with the discovery of oil and growing tourist numbers. As it is now when Emirates lands its Airbus 380, passengers are inconvenienced with delays, what will happen when we have five Boeings landing within half an hour of each other? It will be a disaster.
But why are we even entertaining the idea of government going back into business?
Only this week we learnt that we are losing almost sh400b in treatment for sanitation related decisions partly because we do not have a enough toilets – pit latrines not flush toilets, in the country.