As Uganda seeks to revive its national carrier, local air travel is also expected to ease when the country renovates airfields to increase capacity for domestic flights.
Officials told The EastAfrican that the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) hopes to secure funds from the government, the African Development Bank and World Bank in May 2019, to start the upgrading of five airfields in different parts of the country.
This would address concerns among local aviation companies and tour operators, who have repeatedly voiced frustrations at the poor quality of air transport infrastructure citing it as one of the biggest hindrances to the progress of Uganda’s inland flights.
“We are looking at creating an enabling environment, which is largely in terms of infrastructure. When you create better airfields, you are facilitating local flights,” said Vianney Luggya, CAA public affairs manager.
Four years ago, CAA launched a 20-year masterplan from 2014 to 2033 that will see the expansion of Entebbe International Airport and the upgrading of several other airfields to promote local and international flights in the wake of swelling traveller numbers and the revival of the national carrier.
Uganda has more than 20 airfields, 12 of which are run by the CAA while the rest are privately owned. These, however, are in poor state with no equipment, bad murram runways, while some have been abandoned.
Uganda barely compares with its East African peers Kenya and Tanzania, which have over time developed a robust inland aviation infrastructure.
While Uganda has scheduled local flights, these are few in number, expensive and serve only a limited destination.
Three of the airfields — Arua in the West Nile region, Kasese in the west and Gulu in the north — will be upgraded to international level while the rest will be renovated.
“We have acquired land in Kasese and Arua, and engineering designs and masterplans for those planned for international upgrade are in place,” Mr Luggya said.
It is estimated that Kasese airfield, which is critical for tourism in western Uganda, will cost $176 million while that in Gulu — the northern Uganda business hub — will cost $200 million.
Local aviation companies have often complained about the poor state of the infrastructure of airstrips as the main reason hindering opening up of new routes, as well as imposing high maintenance and operation costs.
The government is also expanding the Entebbe airport and constructing a new one at Kabaale in the oil-rich Hoima district.
With these developments, aviation sector players say that it needs to develop systems that will enable local flights feed off the national carrier, reduce transport time, support the oil industry and promote tourism.
Sceptics, however, argue that with the country’s majority poor barely able to afford air transport, the aviation industry is still unattractive to investors.
“People have invested in buses because our economy is at the bus level: most people travel by bus,” said Capt Francis Babu, a retired pilot.
Local flights in Uganda remain a preserve of the privileged few as a trip from Entebbe to Arua costs $150, and only $8 by bus.
The issue of affordability was echoed by another retired pilot and aviation expert, Capt Mike Mukula, who believes that besides upgrading the airfields, increasing household incomes is critical.
“We also need to make sure that people do not spend a lot of time on the road. Time is money. People have not yet realised that it is cheaper to travel by air than road. It will be cheaper to fly to Arua for one hour than using the road for eight hours,” Capt Mukula said.
According to Joan Kagoro, head of sales and marketing at Eagle Air, one of Uganda’s oldest aviation companies, competition within the country is dominated by five local operators. But these operators must contend with exorbitant taxes, high costs of maintenance and the poor state of airport infrastructure.
Industry experts cite slow traffic between Entebbe International Airport and the capital as an issue that could be solved by having active airstrips in Kampala that act as drop-off points.
Unlike Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda, Uganda’s international airport is quite far from the central business district, at 42km.
“We need public-private partnerships to work on these airstrips. The one at Naguru would have been ideal but the land was taken over by police.
Kololo has been turned into a venue for national celebrations. So we lost these two locations in the city centre that would have been ideal for light aviation,” Capt Mukula said.
Ms Kagoro explained that the high prices for local flights are a result of the low level of utilisation of scheduled flights.
To support tourism, government also plans to open up five upcountry aerodromes for international entries and exits in the top tourist attraction centres — mainly the national parks of Kidepo, Murchison Falls and others in Western Uganda.
Uganda Tourism Board deputy chief executive officer John Ssempebwa argues that development of infrastructure to support local flights will attract high-end tourists to Uganda.
“Clients who are very high end have no time to move by road from Kampala up to say Kidepo. When there are flights, they can even visit the whole of Uganda in three days,” said Mr Ssempebwa.