By David Mugabe
ENTEBBE Airport is emerging as a top destination for giant global airlines.
In just one year, global carriers that previously traversed only South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt have decided to make Entebbe one of their top destination following in the footsteps of British Airways, KLM and Emirates Airlines.
Qatar Airways and Gulf Air are the latest additions to the list of global aviation giants. For Gulf Air, Entebbe will be the fifth African destination. Qatar Airways is set to begin daily flights to Entebbe International Airport in a few days.
Earlier this year, the world’s largest airline Delta (from America) also opened an office in Uganda.
In 2010, Turkish Airlines also made its maiden flight into Uganda direct from Istanbul. In October, 2009, British Airways started flying between Entebbe and London Heathrow Airport five times a week.
Why is Entebbe attractive?
By 1993, Entebbe Airport was handling about 400,000 passengers annually. Today, the figure has risen to over one million passengers, which is an attractive growth pattern.
Ignie Igundura, the CAA head of corporate affairs, says the current passenger traffic was the figure that CAA expected to get by 2018.
“We are ahead of our projection. We have to look at the future,” says Igundura. He explains that the the new carriers did market research on Entebbe’s safety records, potential of the economy and were satisfied.
He says Entebbe is among the emerging powerful airports. He adds that CAA is working on a new master plan to expand the airport.
The 2007 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) gave the airport a facelift and terminals were expanded, to allow larger global carriers to comfortably use Entebbe although a lot still needs to be done to better the facilities.
“The discovery of oil is an obvious attraction,” says one analyst.
Oil is expected to boost the economy and have a ripple effect on many sectors including transport logistics and aviation with the movement of cargo and personnel from the Middle East, which already has experience in the sector.
Therefore, if Uganda decides to refine aviation fuel locally, more airlines can come and refill here, making Entebbe a major attraction and cementing its place as a hub because aviation fuel accounts for about 30% of total operation costs.
Nairobi receives about 65 aircraft daily. If Uganda were to process cheap aviation fuel, a lot of these planes would divert to refill here.
CAA charges from $10 to $1,000 for an aircraft landing at Entebbe depending on the size. The bigger the aircraft, the more damage it does to the airport, according to a CAA official. But having larger aircraft landing in Entebbe daily means more revenue.
Because of this, analysts say CAA needs to work on expanding terminals for ground-handling of cargo.
Also, the Uganda Revenue Authority opened up a one-stop clearance point at the airport, simplifying the process of clearing cargo.
Uganda’s growing significance in the Great Lakes region, especially its role in a stable southern Sudan, Somalia and DR Congo has made it an attractive destination for the carriers. DR Congo and Sudan are two of the wealthiest countries in Africa.
“Uganda and Africa are very important in our future growth strategy,” says Karim Makhlouf, the Gulf Air chief commercial officer.
Gulf Air will make its maiden flight to Entebbe on December 5, flying four times a week.
Flying four times a week appears really ambitious, but the Airbus A-320 size that carries 136 passengers and four tonnes of cargo is what Makhlouf says is an ideal aircraft for this lucrative but neglected route.
Gulf Air from the wealthy oil state of Bahrain (first country to discover oil in the Middle East) was in in this market until 1993 when it halted operations on grounds of inappropriate aircraft size.
The return of Gulf Air is also a direct response to a report from the Ministry of Transport earlier in the year about how travellers were preferring road transport because of its affordability.
Gulf Air is particularly attracted to the about 45,000 Uganda residents in Dubai.
Makhlouf says they will work with the embassy in Dubai to tap into this. But they will have to stave off competition from the fairly established Emirates Airways that flies this route but with a little longer stopover in Ethiopia.
Igundura also reaffirmed that the Middle East is one of the most popular destinations for travellers.
Benefits to Uganda
The influx of giant airlines present an opportunity for a new line of tourism for the country to tap into.
“Uganda is a beautiful country with so much diversity,” says Makhlouf.
But tapping into this new line of tourists especially from the wealthy Middle East can only be achieved with a spirited marketing campaign.
The entry of these airlines will also open up new job opportunities for Ugandans. If well-managed and enforced, skills transfer for a country that deposed off its national carrier will be a bonus.
Igundura says there will be increased choice for traveller