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Air Uganda’s suspension leaves flight nightmare

An air ticket to fly Kenya Airways from Uganda’s Entebbe airport to Jomo Kenyatta in Nairobi has become the hottest selling item in the region.

This disarray in the aviation industry comes three weeks after the suspension of Air Uganda – the other alternative airline on the 45-minute route. Ticket prices for Kenya Airways (KQ) have shot up to between $500 and $1,500, more than twice the previous amount, according to Kelley Mac Tavish, the executive director, Pearl of Africa Tours and Travel.

This has made the Entebbe – Nairobi flight probably the most expensive shortest flight route in the world, with KQ exploiting the gap by increasing its flights out of Entebbe to seven, from five every day.

For passengers on KQ, the pain runs deeper in that getting the ticket is just not enough; the chances of overbooking and missing the flight have shot up at the airline, according to testimonies from one passenger, who flew to Nairobi on Wednesday for one day’s activity, but was still stuck there by Friday.

“I came here for medical treatment. I paid for a return ticket, but they keep telling me there is no return seat for me because their flights are overbooked,” she told The Observer on phone.

“I am spending more money than I had budgeted for. They are too arrogant and are just trying to profit from this [the suspension].

The complaints against KQ have widened the debate on just what could have happened to Air Uganda to have its licence revoked. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) says Air Uganda failed to put in place safety measures that meet international standards, while Air Uganda points out that this whole situation smirks of one big cover-up.

The problem stems from a recent international audit of CAA, which both CAA and Air Uganda are cautious to comment about. According to a June 19, 2014 letter from Cornwell Muleya, the chief executive officer of Air Uganda, “The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) concluded a review of Uganda Civil Aviation systems, structures and operations on 17 June 2014. After this review, the airlines registered in Uganda received notification from the Civil Aviation Authority that all Air Operator Certificates (AOCs) for International Operations had been withdrawn and a new recertification process will be undertaken.”

The AOC, Muleya’s statement explained, is “the document that allows airlines to mount flights and without it, airlines cannot operate their air services.”

The document also calls for improved safety measures, among other international standards. The other airlines that were affected are Uganda Air Cargo and Transafrik International. These three are the only airlines registered in Uganda that fly the international routes.

Muleya says they are ‘working closely with CAA to complete the processes required to resolve the matter in the shortest possible period.’

But from the look of events at the time we went to press, there was still a deadlock. According to sources The Observer spoke to, who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter, CAA was forced to make a stern action against Air Uganda and the other operators in order to be seen to be working after it failed the audit by ICAO.

“CAA is just trying to cover up the damning auditing findings,” said our source.

Wolfgang Thome, one of the longest-serving tour operators in Uganda, described CAA as “sore losers.” He claimed that the authority performed poorly in the ICAO audit, but to save face, it simply “offloaded the blame on the airlines instead of owning up and clearing their own mess first.”

CAA Public Relations Manager Ignie Igundura, however, denies any insinuations that the authority’s action was to protect their face.

“There is no escape route in this industry. We are not operating a bus company,” he said.

“This is a highly-regulated industry. Everything you touch requires regulations. If you don’t comply with them, you fall out. If CAA was found wanting, it wouldn’t have been the airlines to suffer. They [ICAO] would have closed the airport.”

Asked about the audit report, Igundura said it is not a public report and CAA doesn’t currently have it until after 45 days when it will be handed over to them. Igundura, however, noted that the process to recertification is ‘two-way.’

“The airlines have their part to play, we also have our part to play. What the airlines should be doing is to deal with the things we asked them to do. The earlier they submit the requirements, the faster we will be able to deal with their issue with the international regulator,” Igundura said.

Another source, however, said that CAA has had issues with Air Uganda’s management for quite some time. The latest audit, it is said, was what broke the camel’s back, with CAA coming hard on Air Uganda. According to Sebina Muwanga, an advocate interested in aviation issues, it was an error on the part of CAA to withdraw the airlines’ AOCs without giving them the chance to defend themselves.

“CAA neither investigated nor gave notice to revoke or suspend their AOC as is required by law and the rules of natural justice. There were no hearings and the operators were not presented with any evidence. The AOCs were simply revoked/withdrawn/suspended by CAA. The notice given was to effect CAA’s desired action unilaterally with immediate effect,” said Muwanga.

A number of questions remain unanswered, though. Were there any warning letters from the Civil Aviation Authority to Air Uganda over the standards? If those letters were there, are there strong indications that Air Uganda failed to heed to those warnings? Was some grace period given to Air Uganda?

Passengers who continue to face the financial hardships of flying between Nairobi and Entebbe might even have more questions. The answers remain elusive.


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