Uganda revives its national airline: Uganda Airlines will commence flights in July, but will this relaunch of the country's national carrier turn out to be a patriotic triumph or an extravagant folly?

Author:Taylor, Liam

'My first passion and desire to become a pilot was actually born in Entebbe," says Michael Etiang, soft-spoken above broad shoulders. He came regularly to Uganda's international airport in the 1970s, waving off a father in the diplomatic service. The dream stayed with him, through icy winters playing schoolboy rugby in England and a stint toiling in a Ugandan garage. In 1993 a government scholarship gave him his chance. He learned to fly.

This April, Etiang was back in Entebbe, tracing a familiar arc over emerald fields and a shimmering lake in the cockpit of a Bombardier CRJ-900. It was a proud moment for the chief pilot of the new Uganda Airlines. The two 76-seater jets which arrived that day were the first purchases for the revived national carrier. It had been a long wait since the original company collapsed in 2001.

"When old people die, new ones are born," said Yoweri Museveni, the president, at the welcome ceremony. "I was among the undertakers of the funeral of the old airlines. Here I am among the midwifery delivering the new baby."

As he landed, Etiang might have looked back on the journey that brought him there. He was laid-off in Zanzibar when tourist numbers dropped after 9/11. Later he flew cargo planes to Europe--flowers to Amsterdam, fish to Ostend--until the European Union blocked flights over safety concerns. He lost a job in Rwanda during a restructuring; a spell in Indonesia ended when his employer phased out expatriate staff.

Uganda Airlines can find inspiration in Etiang's resolve and quiet pride. But should it also heed a warning in those many setbacks--a sign of just how hard it is for African airlines to succeed?

Second time lucky

Uganda Airlines was born in 1976 when the country's then president, Idi Amin, bought two second-hand Boeing 707s. Before long they were flying the notorious "Stansted shuttle": landing at a small English airfield with a cargo of coffee, then returning laden with army uniforms, Land Rover parts and crates of whisky. In 1979, as invading Tanzanian troops closed in on Entebbe, Amin stuffed cash into the hands of a hesitant Egyptian pilot and told him to fly one of the jets to Libya with his family on board. The other was damaged by shelling. Along with some smaller planes, the fleet had included 15 aircraft; after the fall of Amin, just three were left.

Uganda Airlines staggered on. The creaking planes were inefficient and so noisy that foreign airports restricted when they could land, says...

To continue reading