CORNWELL MULEYA TELLS WWW.ATCNEWS.ORG WHAT IT TAKES TO RETURN UGANDA AIRLINES TO THE SKIES
(Posted 28th September 2020)
Aviation never was for the fainthearted, not in the best of times and certainly not in a year when the #COVID19 pandemic struck the world and brought the entire aviation industry to the brink of ruin.
While some airlines did rather well under the circumstances, such as Ethiopian Airlines and Qatar Airways – both blessed with visionary and creative leadership – did others signal the end of their financial road while yet others, backed by their governments but kept on the ground for extended lockdowns and border closures, were handed the lifeline of a restart.
Uganda Airlines, in the air for just about half a year at the time when Uganda closed airport and borders, had flown over 75.000 passengers on their four CRJ900 aircraft, serving Nairobi, Mombasa, Juba, Mogadishu, Kilimanjaro, Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar and Bujumbura and at the time being just days away from launching additional services to Johannesburg and Kinshasa.
While grounded did the airline however manage to perform a number of repatriation flights for Ugandans stuck abroad, to Nairobi, Johannesburg, Lusaka and as far as West Africa. Their aircraft also took to the air for check flights following maintenance to retain their certificates of airworthiness something raised by readers with ATCNews, after seeing the aircraft take off and later return to land again.
Now, with the end of the lockdown finally in sight – the airport and borders will reopen on the 01st of October – is the airline’s staff in overdrive to take to the air again, come Thursday this week.
ATCNews, having spoken to the airline’s CEO Cornwell Muleya way back in May, just as the lockdown had been put into effect, again took the opportunity for a chat and a series of question, which Mr. Muleya took the time to answer:
Q: Uganda Airlines celebrated their first anniversary two weeks ago and according to my information carried about 75.000 passengers during the half year it was able to operate before the #COVID19 pandemic grounded the airline. What passenger number did you hope for when launching flights in August last year before the pandemic messed up the aviation industry?-
The actual passengers carried for the period were 77,400 which was a 10% shortfall from the projected 85,000 passengers for the period up to March 2020
Q: Uganda Airlines had progressively launched destinations since August last year and just prior to the pandemic reaching Uganda announced that both Johannesburg and Kinshasa would come next. I suppose you now need to copy your launch of last year again and the question is, will it also be a gradual re-introduction of destinations like Juba, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, Mogadishu, Bujumbura, Zanzibar and Mombasa or will you simply resume your initial schedule – of course with reduced frequencies until demand has stabilized?-
It is not a matter of simply resuming our previous schedules because a lot has changed in the aviation markets. Many countries are still closed and those that have opened so far apply severe restrictions on the number of flights. In addition, quarantine procedures are also in place, bringing uncertainty in how arriving passengers will be treated. That is why we will be starting with only four destinations as from the 01st of October 2020 namely Nairobi-NBO, Juba – JUB, Dar Es Salaam – DAR and Mogadishu – MGQ. Frequencies will indeed be reduced from previous levels but will be progressively increased based on market response.
Q: To keep your fleet of 4 CRJ900’s airworthy was scheduled maintenance but also flights needed to meet regulatory requirements. How did Uganda Airlines cope with that challenge, having no income and yet needing to spend money on such activities?
We are fortunate to be in our start-up phase where we still have some capital from the shareholders allowing us to fund these activities as we await to restart flights to reconnect Uganda to the outside world. In addition, during the lockdown period, we have been performing repatriation flights and Charter flights, for different clients and this has also helped earn some much needed income
Q: Uganda Airlines carried out a series of repatriation flights, several to Southern Africa, but also to Nairobi and West Africa. How many Ugandans did you manage to bring home who otherwise would have been stranded abroad?
We brought back over 250 passengers on the repatriation flights and this was a good contribution towards solving the travel problems faced by many Ugandans that were abroad at the time. If it was not for the limited quarantine capacity, we could have carried out more flights and brought back more people on such flights.
Q: From media reports I understand that both Airbus A330-800Neo are under assembly and will still arrive as initially planned, late this year and early next year. Will you stick to the launch plans for flights to Europe, the Gulf and Asia, especially considering you need to rebuild your network and boost passenger numbers connecting from across your network in Entebbe to long haul flights or will long haul destination launches be delayed as a result of the fallout of the pandemic?
Yes, the delivery schedule for the two A330-800neo aircraft remains as agreed. The aircraft will be delivered in December 2020 and January 2021 as planned. We are working hard to complete the paperwork required to get permissions to fly to the UK-London, UAE– Dubai and China- Guangzhou. As you can imagine, the lockdowns for #COVID19 have affected the pace of negotiations with the various countries and now that countries are opening up, this should get back on track. We intend to fly the A330-800neos as from January 2021.
Q: Uganda Airlines was planning to launch flights to London, if I am correct, to Gatwick but many people have asked me if you are considering a waypoint stop for instance in Frankfurt, given that Germany is – or has pre-pandemic been – a major source market for visitors to Uganda, with no direct flights?
We have applied to fly to both London Heathrow – LHR, and London Gatwick – LGW as a starting point for European connections. We continue to look at other viable points in Europe and I am certain Germany is one of the countries of interest sure.
Q: A major expense for every home airline at their hub airport is aircraft handling. Will Uganda Airlines apply for self-handling or do you plan to retain the services of one of the two handling agencies present in Entebbe?
As already approved by the shareholders in the Business Plan of the airline, we have been working with the two handling companies in the short term. However, long term, we are working on setting up the Uganda Airlines self-handling structures at the airport and therefore we shall progressively move towards self-handling within a year or two.
Q: There has been a chorus from across the world that physical distancing, aka social distancing, should also be applied on board of aircraft, just like in restaurants, trains or busses on the ground. What is your opinion about this and how will Uganda Airlines handle this sensitive issue – after all it does impact on the perception of would be passengers as to their health and safety on board.
The aircraft cabin air is the most safe environment as far as the risk of COVID19 is concerned. HEPA filters deployed on these aircraft are able to filter out 99.99% of all microbes in the air, including COVID19. The air in the cabin is completely changed every 3 minutes thus making the cabin atmosphere better than a hospital intensive care unit where air is flushed out every 10 minutes. We need to spread the message so that passengers can be reassured of this important safety element.
Q: What measures did you have to employ to keep the airline financially afloat during the past 6 months, given that you had no income apart from the few repatriation flights you were able to operate? Did the Ugandan government extend financial support to the airline during these ‘dry’ months?
Like everybody else, we had to limit our costs to ensure we spend money on only the essential elements, to keep our staff safe, our premises secure and in good working order, our IT systems, tools and equipment, including aircraft, in good working order as per industry standards. We implemented administrative cost containment measures without affecting these important technical aspects. As a start-up, the government as shareholder has continued to provide the planned capital as per the Business Plan.
Q: Given the apprehension of many people to fly at this point in time, what reassurance can you give prospective passengers in regard of health and safety measures taken from check in over the departure lounge to boarding, inflight and arrivals at the destination airport.
Uganda Airlines in conjunction with the Ministry of Health, the Uganda Civil Aviation Authority and Entebbe Airport Management, has applied International Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), in its passenger interactions across the travel chain from arrival at airport and check-in, all the way up to Boarding and disembarkation at destination airports. The SOPs have been developed in consultation with industry working groups including IATA, ICAO, AFRAA, AFCAC etc. and these measures include a requirement for all passengers to undergo a pre-flight Negative Covid Test result. These steps which also include social distancing within airports, the disinfection of aircraft cabins, wearing of face masks in airports and on board the aircraft, and airlines ensuring a sterile cabin environment, make sure that passengers are kept safe from the risk of infection from diseases as they travel on our flights.
Q: When we last spoke we discussed memberships in IATA, the IATA clearing house (ICH) and AFRAA but also Uganda Airline’s work progress to secure that quintessential IOSA certification from IATA. This is today almost a prerequisite to enter into commercial arrangements with other airlines such as interlining or the next stage, code shares. Where does Uganda Airlines stand right now on these points?
Unfortunately Covid19 has affected the IOSA program worldwide and many airlines have to get renewals and so start-up audits have been pushed back until this is completed. However, we have already taken steps to join the IATA Billing Settlement Plans in many jurisdictions including Europe and also applied for the ICH membership. Regardless of our pending IOSA program we have still pursued bilateral interline relationships with many carriers and been quite successful already with that process. We are looking to do more as we wait for the situation to normalise.
Q: In closing a question about your regional competition. Kenya Airways, RwandAir, Air Tanzania, Precision Air and of course Ethiopian Airlines. They have been flying since July, early August and in ET’s case, they never stopped flying at all. Will it be harder for Uganda Airlines to re-enter the market at this relatively late stage post lockdown or have the challenges remained the same compared to last year when you launched operations?
The challenges have become quite daunting for the aviation industry worldwide. There has never been a time in history when airlines were stopped from flying as it has happened in the last 6 months. We are now carefully examining all our markets to see how demand may evolve so that we can plan for the deployment of resources appropriately. Success in aviation is always a careful balancing act and this in more so now for all airlines whether large or small. While we are mindful of the competitive landscape, our success will depend on how well we can shape our future in the changed post covid operating environments.
So there you are ATCNews readers, especially those from Uganda and across Africa. Uganda Airlines’ CEO clearly has the proverbial handle on things and all matters which cause unease and apprehension among the traveling public. As the airline is now just three days away from returning to the skies, best wishes to their management, the teams at Entebbe International Airport and the other airports in the region and of course the crews. Happy Landings to them all, always!
And to Mr. Cornwell Muleya, a big thank you for taking time to discuss these questions when you are literally working around the clock now ahead of the relaunch on October 01st.
Link to previous interview by ATCNews with the Ugandan Airlines CEO