By Arnold Agaba
2019 will be a crucial year for the evolution of Uganda’s aviation sector.
The significant infrastructural investments in the aviation sector which the government has made for the past 5 years are on track to be evinced in 2019.
The most notable investments include upgrading and expanding Entebbe International Airport and other regional airfields and re-launching the national airline.
The revival of the national airline has since its announcement encountered some light turbulence mainly regarding the funding of the scheme which in turn has delayed the anticipated to take off of the airline.
However, the relaunch of the airline is now expected to be fulfilled when Uganda takes delivery of the Bombardier CRJ900 and Airbus A330neo aircraft by mid 2019.
Also, the upgrade and expansion projects on Entebbe International Airport and other regional airfields are on scheduled to either enter advanced stages or to be completed in 2019.
The massive investment into the aviation sector by the government is principally for the dual purpose of harnessing the potential of the tourism, export-trade and mining sectors as well as cashing in on the burgeoning demand for air travel within the region.
But, when the airline begins operation, it will enter a market with thin profit margins and stiff competition from well-established airlines in the region who have developed route presence and brand loyalty.
Therefore, Uganda will only be able capitalize on the massive investment and relaunch of the airline if the airline provides an air transport service superior to that of its competitors. Accordingly, Uganda Airlines must differentiate its service from that of its regional competitors.
One pivotal differentiation will be for the airline to provide a more convenient flight option to the passengers bound for destinations within Uganda.
Consequently, the national airline must extend its services into the domestic market by introducing services on vital domestic routes into popular destinations like Arua, Gulu, Hoima, Jinja, Kasese, Kabale and Kidepo.
A domestic service will not only expand Uganda Airline’s foot print beyond the Entebbe hub into epicenters of tourism, agriculture, manufacturing and production but, it will also make the upcountry regions more attractive as tourist and business destinations.
Additionally by enhancing accessibility, cutting the travel time and improving overall convenience for travelers, the airline will consolidate its market presence and possibly dominate the market share for passengers seeking regular flights into popular destinations within Uganda.
Establishing a domestic service is costly, deploying new aircraft into underdeveloped airfields is risky and ill-advised plus, the logic of kick starting scheduled domestic flights while operating a 90 seater plane may not be supported by the current economies of scale.
So, one strategy the airline should adopt to induce the traffic on these domestic routes is to partner with well-established domestic carriers who have developed city pairs between the Entebbe hub and regional destinations.
Eagle Air and Aerolink are the two major airlines transporting cabotage traffic beyond the Entebbe hub.
Eagle Air mostly operates routes into the West Nile, Northern and Eastern regions whereas AeroLink mostly covers Western and Eastern regions.
The two airlines generally have good coverage of regional domestic routes and so partnering with them will enable Uganda Airlines to seamlessly expand its route network into numerous domestic destinations without incurring the operational expense or having to cope with the economic risks involved.
Since the two domestic airlines already have a dominant market presence on the most vital routes and, have the aircraft, labor and operational flexibility to increase the frequency of their flights according to the stimulated air traffic, a Uganda Airlines partnership with the domestic airlines is propitious.
The relaunched national airline can only stimulate economic growth if it catalyzes tourism, export trade, manufacturing and mining.
For the airline to do this, it must vigorously compete with the dominant carriers in the region like Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways and Rwanda Air.
As such, the airline must be preceptive, imaginative and shrewd in its operations. Uganda airlines should begin its contest for traffic by offering a domestic route network which none of the competing carriers in the region presently possess.
Mr. Agaba Arnold is a scholar at McGill University’s Institute of Air and Space Law. [email protected]