Thankfully, it appears that the sensationalised debate on social media about Uganda Airlines and its management has finally died out. Now, let’s talk about something that is patently pivotal to our economic development – Entebbe International Airport.
As a landlocked country, we must always address any inadequacies at Entebbe airport. Let me explain. Twenty three years ago when I was a business reporter at The New Vision, I was sent to interview a man from Malaysia who had jetted into the country to talk about the development jargon of those days – the “big push.”
The interview was at the Kampala Sheraton hotel. His name was Dato Jegathesan. From my research, I gathered that he was a well-known developmental expert. I also learnt he had gained international recognition by successfully starting the acclaimed Malaysian Industrial Development Authority in 1967.
He was in Uganda in his capacity as a consultant for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. Jegathesan’s mission to Uganda was to meet and brief key players in our private sector, as well as in Uganda Investment Authority and other government departments on a new economic development strategy known all over the world as the “big push to achieve a quantum leap.”
The business editor had told me to ask him how we could use the big push idea to turn around Uganda Airlines, which was then on the verge of death. The focus of the interview was supposed to be Uganda Airlines, but the man was more interested in talking about Entebbe airport.
Essentially, he was concerned about our status as a landlocked, least developed country. I came to understand then – as I do now – that a national airline would contribute marginally to our economic development. He made me understand how we could tackle the problem of being a poor landlocked by investing hugely in Entebbe airport.
The starting point is to correctly understand the problem at the heart of our landlocked situation. It is called a “wicked” problem. This kind of problem is not solved with simple, straightforward solutions.
So, in respect of Uganda Airlines, Parliament’s Committee on Commissions, Statutory Authorities and State Enterprises shouldn’t have drawn a lot of public attention to the matter of staff qualifications. Similarly, the government shouldn’t have opted to buy the six planes.
Indeed, an air transport regulation consultant based in Kampala told me that the outright purchase of the six planes was “a great mistake” because government has committed a lot of capital on them. Most airlines, she said, own a percentage of their fleet and most aircraft are dry-leased, which means that the airline is rented but the crew is not.
The advantage of this model is that when circumstances change, for instance, if the airline wishes to upgrade to another aircraft, all they have to do is to return the aircraft to the leasing agency and lease another aircraft. This gives the airline flexibility because it will not be stuck with a fleet that does not serve its purpose, especially when circumstances change.
We need to pay more attention to what Jegathesan called “competitive strength” than to comparative advantage. We need to make a “quantum leap” into a knowledge- based and skill-based economy.
How? He singled out Entebbe airport because of its centrality to the big push concept. He said government urgently needed to make the facility a major air transport logistics centre. This would require heavy investment in upgrading airport facilities to make turnaround time so fast Entebbe would become a First World airport in a Third World economy.
High transport costs undermine the competitiveness of landlocked countries such as Uganda in regional and global markets. It also impedes their ability to produce at lower costs.
Therefore, turning Entebbe airport into a world-class transit hub for cargo and passengers is what the government should have prioritised, using our own resources. But by trying to get the Chinese to do it – sinking Uganda into deeper debt and igniting rumours of a Chinese takeover of Entebbe airport – and by haphazardly reviving Uganda Airlines, we missed out on the big push concept.
Let’s reduce talk about Uganda Airlines staff and discuss how to make Entebbe a global transit hub and how it can get a “Category One” status allowing direct flights to the United States.
In Africa, only Cape Verde, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa have so far managed to attain such coveted status granted by the US Federal Aviation Administration.
The writer is an associate consultant at Uganda Management Institute