By Nigel M. Nassar
Two weeks after Ethiopian Airlines launched a daily direct route from Entebbe to Juba, frequent flyers between Uganda and South Sudan seem to be embracing the development rather fast.
The airline’s maiden flight on the route, which took place with a 2:30pm departure from Entebbe International Airport on August 5, had 14 paying passengers, and a little over 20 returning the following day.
But three days later when New Vision journalists were asked on board to experience the route, paying passengers had more than doubled, with the return the following day having over 50 of them.
According to Abebe Angessa, the Ethiopian Airline area manager, the numbers depict a rather quick response when compared to conventional passenger patterns in the airline business, which is why they expect good results for both passenger and cargo airlifting.
Reiterating Abebe’s response, Minale Shewa, the airline’s country manager for South Sudan, told journalists on recently that they expected even fewer passengers, given the political unrest in Uganda’s immediate northern neighbor South Sudan.
“If you can get 10 passengers on a new route involving South Sudan, then you know you are in business," said Shewa.
“Business has been so slow over here because of the political unrest. With such numbers, the Entebbe-Juba route will pick up faster than expected, especially since peace is around the corner.”
Minale Shewa, the airline’s country manager for South Sudan
‘Air Uganda factor’
A number of passengers we talked to on the route attributed the quick response to the indefinite suspension of operations by Air Uganda – which they relied on – and previous delays connecting via Nairobi and other destinations on other airlines.
“Uganda is South Sudan’s biggest trade partner; so it is inevitable that a direct daily route between the two countries will become popular,” says businessman Ranmal V. Keshwala, the managing director of the Kampala-based Keshwala Group of Companies, who was on board last Friday.
“I have flown the Entebbe-Juba route frequently for two years now, trading household commodities from Kampala to South Sudan. But my routine got interrupted when Air Uganda stopped operations about three months ago,” he said.
“During that time I have had to endure high fares and interconnection delays twice on Kenya Airways. With the direct route daily from Entebbe to Juba, and the fact that I can get to transport with them cargo, I get to save a whole day on time, and about $200 on passenger fares.”
Businessman Ranmal V. Keshwala and his partner Shiva Kumar
Keshwala was accompanied by his business partner Shiva Kumar on a feasibility study trip for a household manufacturing industry in Juba.
‘No more delays’
South Sudan diplomat Lual Agany says he has been losing a whole day on the route, which he, in his line of business, plies a lot.
“It is nice to know that with Ethiopian’s daily direct flight, I get to fly for just 50 minutes and not get subjected to delays waiting for my connector flight,” he says.
Until this move, Rwandair has been the only airline offering direct flights to Juba, thrice a week.
An Ethiopian Airlines flight attendant serves drinks onboard
With this move, Ethiopian becomes the only airline plying the route daily for return fares starting at $400 (about sh1m), and the only one airlifting cargo for $1 (sh2,600) per kg.
Asked about the rationale for introducing the new services, area manager Abebe Angessa said, “We have been flying to Juba via Addis Ababa, but now we need our customers from Uganda to get direct services at very competitive fares in the region. “
He went on: “Today, Ethiopia, Uganda and South Sudan are registering fast economic growth, and are strengthening their economic cooperation with increased trade, tourism and infrastructure connections.
“Ethiopian is playing its part in enabling greater investment, trade and business ties between the three countries by availing critically essential air connectivity."
The flight departs at 2:00pm daily, and arrives in Juba at 3:00pm before departing at 4:00pm to land at Entebbe an hour later.