Uganda banking on new entrants to drive recovery of aviation sector
Uganda is betting on the entry of new operators and the expansion of flag carrier Uganda Airlines route network, to reverse a 71.5 percent slump in arrivals occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic last year.
Sharjah based low-cost carrier Air Arabia, is scheduled to launch services to Entebbe starting October 10, just days after flag carrier Uganda Airlines starts its Dubai service on October4. Air Arabia enters the Ugandan market less than a month after Cape-town based Airlink commenced flights to Entebbe on September19.
Air Arabia’s entry provides a second landing point in the UAE for travellers from Uganda. Just like Uganda Airlines new Dubai service, Air Arabia will operate three times a week between Entebbe and Sharjah.
The flurry of new activity has brightened prospects for the recovery of Uganda’s air transport sector that suffered a sharp drop in traffic in 2020. Passenger numbers dropped from 1.98 million arrivals in 2019 to just 565,541 last year. Cargo defied the pandemic rising from 42,000 metric tonnes in 2019 to 58,898 over the same period.
Six airlines currently serve the Uganda-Middle East market through a combination of direct and indirect services. But only Air Arabia and flydubai offer a low-cost product, filling an essential segment that leaves the main carriers to concentrate on the premium market.
Until Airlink’s entry, Uganda Airlines has been the only direct operator between Entebbe and Johannesburg. A possible return by SAA which resumed commercial services this week after an 18month hiatus, would increase direct connections from Entebbe to Joburg to three carriers.
Yet far from muddying the waters for Uganda Airlines, officials say the new arrivals will actually help grow the market and generate new traffic to and from Uganda.
“We have a different model from existing operators and our studies of this market over the past five years, show that there is still plenty of room for growth in traffic,” says Abdisalam Ibrahim, Air Arabia’s General Sales Agent for Eastern Africa.
The airline hopes that connecting Uganda to its five hubs in the Middle East and North Africa, will stimulate new travel by offering onward lift beyond Sharjah. The carrier also operates services into Europe. Air Arabia which will be using an Airbus A320 for the Entebbe service, is also offering Covid-19 insurance cover within the ticket cost.
Vianney Luggya, the manager for public affairs at the Uganda Civil Aviation Authority says experience had shown that rather than cannibalise incumbents, new airlines actually grow their own traffic.
“Each new airline markets the destination and the result of that is that you get new growth,” says Vianney Luggya, the manager Public Affairs at the Uganda Civil Aviation Authority.
He cited the example of defunct Air Uganda which in the nearly seven years of its operation, had added half a million passengers to Entebbe’s annual tally.
It was not immediately clear if Airlink intends to fill the void left by SAA which suspended services to Uganda in February 2020 or to operate as alternative to the two legacy carriers. Its’ night time slots suggest that it is leaving room for SAA’s possible return which came back to the market this week with a pared down fleet of just 22 aircraft.
With connections to 45 destinations in 12 African countries, SA Airlink is also expected to market Uganda as a destination, attracting more travellers to the country.
“The flights between Entebbe and Johannesburg are scheduled to provide convenient onward connections with Airlink to every key market in the Southern African Development Community group of nations,” says Airlink board member and non-executive director Captain Duke Moroosi.
The carrier says it has also entered partnerships with a number of long-haul operators to provide onward lift for passengers who might want to travel beyond southern Africa.
Entebbe is Airlink’s second destination in the region after Dar es Salaam. In May, the airline entered an interline agreement with Kenya Airways, to facilitate passenger exchange between the two carriers.
Moroosi adds that while they have started with only two flights a week, additional flights would be added in tune with market growth.
Johannesburg was the sixth largest market out of Uganda with 56,000 point-to-point passengers in 2019 while 282 passengers were leaving Uganda for Dubai daily over the same period.