East Africa should look beyond Ubumwe’s wings

Without a doubt, the biggest story this past week was the reception of RwandAir’s Airbus A330-200, the first of its kind in the East African region and crucial addition to the RwandAir fleet of nine. The plane made a symbolic stop at Uganda’s Entebbe International Airport in the only East African country with no national airline to speak of. I guess it was a way of further luring the Ugandan market away from RwandAir’s main competitor Kenya Airways.

Without a doubt, the biggest story this past week was the reception of RwandAir’s Airbus A330-200, the first of its kind in the East African region and crucial addition to the RwandAir fleet of nine.

The plane made a symbolic stop at Uganda’s Entebbe International Airport in the only East African country with no national airline to speak of. I guess it was a way of further luring the Ugandan market away from RwandAir’s main competitor Kenya Airways. 

 

Ethiopian Airways also did the same when it acquired its Airbus A350XWB in June and landed at Entebbe. Indeed the Ugandan market has been up for grabs since AirUganda closed shop.  

 

Personally, I have been glad to witness the tremendous journey that Rwanda’s flag carrier has made over the recent years. As a reporter, I covered its rebranding from Rwandair Express to RwandAir in June 2009. Soon after, I was on the airport tarmac with a small Canon Powershot camera and a voice recorder when the company bought its first aircraft – a second hand 50-seater Bombardier CRJ200 jet.

 

The has basically grown from wet leasing aircraft from other aviation companies to buying second hand aircraft and now to making orders straight from manufacturers like Boeing in US and Airbus in France. By the end of the year RwandAir will have a fleet of 10 aeroplanes after it receives the second Airbus (A330-300).

One of the major justifications for growing the presence of RwandAir has been to cushion the country’s growing tourism potential. Tourism is a key foreign exchange earner for Rwanda and having a functional airline as part of the sector’s infrastructure is important. As a region it was refreshing to see that as RwandAir launched Ubumwe, Tanzania’s President John Magufuli was also launching at the Julius Nyerere International Airport two new Bombardier Q400 NextGen aircrafts from Canada.  

President Magufuli pledged to revive the country’s national carrier, Air Tanzania and his government has already allocated money for the purchase of a 160-seater aircraft and another with over 240 seats. There is also a plan to construct more airports across Tanzania to open up the vast country’s tourism potential.

In Kenya, news that a new former Safaricom CEO Michael Joseph is set to join the board of troubled Kenya Airways was received with a level of excitement. Mr Joseph’s name came up during the airline’s Annual General Meeting held on Thursday. The hope is that he will do his magic and turn around the company like he did when he grew Safaricom into the region’s most profitable company.

Kenya Airways is not the only carrier in the region that is making losses and so beyond acquisition of new planes, all regional airlines need to quickly find strategies that will see them run commercially and profitably as soon as possible.  

Regional governments also have to invest in the aviation industry fully. The region’s tourism prospects cannot be detached from investment in aviation. Investment in the upgrading of international and regional airports is very important. As an industry that is growing globally the need for skilled labour is more crucial now than before.

Skilled labour in this sector means not just training of pilots but also engineers, technicians, ground handling personnel, airhosts and hostesses, ticketing agents and even journalists who are well versed with aviation dynamics. 

As East Africa, we do not have to just compete on aircrafts yet the industry is much bigger than what we see in the air. We must not forget that when it comes to tourism we are in competition with Southern Africa and North Africa.

It is quite encouraging that Rwanda is in advanced stages of constructing a new airport in Bugesera and that Kenya is upgrading its regional airports to international standards to allow big aircraft to land there when the need arises. What remains is the elephant in the room that has kept air travel in the region arguably the most expensive in the world.

The talk of making the region one airspace and thus eliminating some of the exorbitant airport taxes would go a long away in boosting the aviation industry in the region. When the price of airline tickets comes down, more East Africans will be in position to enjoy the comfort of facilities like Ubumwe beyond retweeting and re-sharing photos. After all Ubumwe means unity.

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