UGANDA (eTN) – Yesterday saw the long-awaited return to Uganda of Bahrain’s national airline, Gulf Air, when the inaugural flight touched down on time at 1545 hours at Entebbe International Airport, greeted by the traditional welcome shower by two fire engines, dousing the plane with an arc of water as it taxied into the apron area. Received by the top echelon of the Uganda Civil Aviation Authority and other government officials, Gulf Air was warmly welcomed back, 11 years after halting flights in late 2000, when the airline opted out of East Africa as a result of unfavorable market conditions.
The airline later held a press briefing and interacted with Ugandan journalists and other media organizations, giving valuable insight into the reasons for returning to “The Pearl of Africa,” naming the discovery of oil and gas, among others, as a decisive factor.
Operating initially 4 times a week between Bahrain and Entebbe, this was explained by the airline’s Chief Services Officer, Mr. Marcus Bernhardt, as a “balanced approach to opening new routes” not putting up too much capacity to start with and adding more flights as demand and uptake rose. He cited the case of Nairobi, where Gulf Air had started operations earlier in the year already, and where until now also 4 frequencies were operating, with average load factors now exceeding 85 percent. This, he added, was evidence that their expansion strategy back into Africa was working, while at the same time letting on that for Nairobi, more flights were already being planned for 2012, and that the same would apply for Uganda, once satisfactory loads have been achieved.
The aircraft, an A320, offers 16 seats in C-class and 120 seats in Y-class plus up to 4 tons of cargo space, important for Uganda’s flower, produce, and fish exporters to the important markets of the Gulf, where the airline operates the most extensive network of any of the airlines in the region.
The airline later in the evening hosted the travel fraternity and business community for a dinner at the Kampala Serena Hotel, with key personnel of their appointed GSA, Let’s Go Travel Uganda/Uniglobe also present and already busy “working the market.”
Notably, Gulf Air staff present embarked on a major charm offensive, more than making up for the shaky start a few weeks ago, when, probably misguided by their agency chosen to help prepare the launch sequence and events leading up to the inaugural flight date, key agencies and media were “overlooked,” prompting some stinging criticism at the time. In particular, Gulf Air’s Manager of Communications, Ms. Azza Mubarak Matar, went out of her way to give all the answers, and then some more, to the media pack, including this correspondent.
In a related development, the Managing Director of the Uganda Civil Aviation Authority, Dr. Rama Makuza, responded to this correspondent’s question over access by passengers to the airport terminal, crucially important during the present rainy season, when the long walk, from the far end of the parking area to the entrance of the terminal being half a kilometer, regularly results in travelers arriving at the terminal soaking wet. “We expect some improvements about six months from now,” said Dr. Makuza, while then continuing to read from the official “hymn sheet” saying, “These restrictions are for passengers’ safety and the bit of inconvenience is a prize worth paying to ensure security.”
Passengers, especially those reaching the terminal dripping wet, as repeatedly witnessed in recent weeks, would vehemently disagree with this assessment, and rightly so, considering that in Nairobi for instance vehicles still drive up to the terminal to offload passengers and their bags, with Entebbe being the ONLY airport in the wider region to impose such restrictions. Other Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) staff privately conceded that it was a constant source of arguments between them and the airlines on one side and the personnel of security organizations who had imposed such crippling restrictions, for whom the comfort of passengers is clearly an alien concept.
That all said, it is a warm welcome back to Gulf Air, which has added greater choices and wider options for passengers to and from Uganda.