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Uganda aviation at a crossroads

crossroads
crossroads
Written by editor

June 17 is a day which is likely to be remembered in Ugandan aviation circles as a day of infamy, when the Uganda Civil Aviation Authority (UCAA) grounded all locally-registered airlines from flights

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June 17 is a day which is likely to be remembered in Ugandan aviation circles as a day of infamy, when the Uganda Civil Aviation Authority (UCAA) grounded all locally-registered airlines from flights beyond the country’s borders, amended, in some cases backdated, existing AOCs, aka Air Operator Certificates, and in other cases withdrawing them altogether. The operators flying out of Kajjansi, like Mission Aviation Fellowship, in short MAF, Ndege Aviation, and the Aero Club had their AOCs called in on June 6 already and changed, backdated to the day of original issuance, disallowing flights across Uganda’s borders, showing that the UCAA already knew then what was coming their way as the ICAO audit unfolded.

In letters seen addressed to airlines, the UCAA cited the 2014 Regulations for their action, which at the time were not legalized by the required Statutory Instrument, a legally important point to which the regulators never answered. The statutory instrument in fact was only gazetted on July 11, weeks after the UCAA had purported to act on regulations which were simply not yet valid at the time. A UCAA source claimed that ‘internally’ they had agreed on the new regulations way back in May, but conceded that the airlines were not informed at the time of the new set of regulations coming into effect nor would acknowledge the variance of the UCAA citing the new regulations as a foundation for their action when they were clearly not gazetted and the statutory instrument signed. Worse, it was one of the Ugandan aviators from Kajjansi who had to draw their attention, when eventually getting a soft copy, to the fact that an entire section had been omitted, probably as a result of the rush to get the new regulations into a publishable state, but then later inserted in the hard copy, covering up another potential failure by the regulators.

The instant withdrawal of an AOC, as has happened here to not one but three airlines, would ordinarily be a result of a series of safety and other regulatory violations. Deadlines would be set to comply and only after failure to do so within the given timeframe would a normal regulator take such drastic and globally almost unprecedented action, referring to grounding the entire , comprising three airlines which flew international routes.

None of those circumstances however existed in the case of those Ugandan airlines which had to surrender their operations permits on that day, nor was there any case made to any of them about an imminent threat to public interest. No appeal process was allowed as the regulators had turned themselves into the proverbial accusers, witnesses for the prosecutors, judge and executioner all at once. Subsequent public utterances attributed to the UCAA were instantly dismissed by the aviation fraternity as smokescreens, attempts to whitewash themselves of what they had done and poorly disguised attempts to hide the fact that at the end of an ICAO audit they were faced with being cited with Significant Safety Concerns as a result of the auditor’s findings. This and this alone prompted the Ugandan regulators to cover up their failures by quickly withdrawing all AOC’s for international flights, at which stage ICAO’s jurisdiction became very limited as domestic operations fall under the purview of the national regulators alone.

UCAA mouthpieces then stepped up the war of words, accusing airlines of failed safety standards, a highly non-procedural if not outright unethical way of doing business to start with – such concerns must be communicated to the airlines in writing and the letter of 17th of June did not contain any such allegations – and clearly aimed to smear reputations in what can generally be seen in other circumstances as slanderous if not outright character assassination.

Repeated interaction with the airlines, and the proverbial ‘Deep Throat’ from the UCAA, as well as feedback from a source at ICAO, obviously also wishing to remain unnamed, soon made it obvious that the stories peddled by the regulators did not hold water and when the media finally caught on to the fact that they had been misused to disguise the truth, things began to crumble for the UCAA.

Panic set in at the CAA head office when the options were raised of legal action, not just against the authority itself but against key individuals thought to have conspired to save their own back at the expense of an entire industry. No one any longer, at that stage, believed their version that ICAO had audited the airlines, found patently untrue as ICAO only deals with member state aviation bodies and not individual airlines as the Montreal based source from the International Civil Aviation Organization also confirmed.

A further dead giveaway were conversations at the end of July between two Kajjansi based operators and a senior management staff from the UCAA who reportedly said to them when challenged on the legalities of retrospectively amending their AOC’s to prohibit flights across national borders “…that the withdrawal of the international flights from them was a result of 1) it was in the public interest and b) it was an emergency – reasoning is that if Uganda failed the audit then it would be embarrassing for the Republic of Uganda, and therefore the public interest is best served by avoiding this embarrassment. It was also an emergency because it would be VERY embarrassing.”

A UCAA board meeting eventually took place at the beginning of August when the public and political pressure became too much after six weeks of dillydallying and while some pertinent details have since emerged, due to the limited number of people in that room it would risk exposing a source if even a word would be printed of what the board had to say about the mess they are now confronted with by the actions of a management team running riot over the aviation industry.

Time to look at some of the facts as they are now known:

The ICAO audit found several short comings within the UCAA structures as recorded in the 17th June letter to the airlines. The audit failures were as follows:

The industry visit revealed the following shortcomings:

– The Air Operator certification process as established by the Authority was not reflected and could not be observed in the operators’ processes and procedures.

– Insufficient or lack of industry surveillance to enable the Authority [to] identify shortcomings and the operator to correct non-compliances.

– The industry was observed to be complacent and lacked commitment to effect and implement the terms of approval.

In view of the above shortcomings, and in order to avoid harming the entire civil aviation system of Uganda, the following actions have been decided:

1. That the approved AOC and Operations Specifications (OpSpecs) of all international commercial air operators be withdrawn.

2. That your AOC and OpSpecs be surrendered to the Authority without delay.

At a meeting on June 17, the CEO of the UCAA admitted to airline executives that the ICAO auditors informed the Authority that they would issue an SSC on Uganda as a result of the recorded audit shortcomings. It was then that UCAA decided to withdraw the international AOC’s from the remaining 3 Uganda registered airlines, Air Uganda, Transafrik and Uganda Air Cargo after earlier on amending the AOC’s of the Kajjansi-based operators.

The action was apparently taken without following Regulation 97 or Regulation 9(4). There was no warning given or any discussion held with the airlines concerned. The UCAA did not take into consideration the damage to the airlines and aviation industry in what today appears to be a case of not just gross negligence but perhaps worse, a conspiracy of a few to cover up their own failures.

Although it was within the UCAA’s discretion to issue a temporary AOC’s for a limited period of time while the recertification was being carried out under the new regulations which became valid on the 11th of July (as is the case in the industry worldwide) this was obviously not done so as to evade the Damocles Sword of ICAO from falling on them. While this would have ensured continuity of operations for the airlines concerned, not having employed that option only lent credibility to instant and ongoing rumors and allegations that a hidden agenda was at work and ulterior motives were the drivers behind the UCAA decisions, perhaps with scores to settle, maybe masters to please or even to shut the door on some and open them for others being the most often mentioned scenarios.

The conspiracy theory followers went as far as linking the CAA to individuals keen to revive the defunct Uganda Airlines, which at a projected cost of several hundred million Dollars of course could become the mother of all buffets to still the feeding frenzy such figures bring about, probably as a result of UCAA mouthpieces admitting that the CAA had in fact handed a white paper to government making a case for a national airline. The fact that Air Uganda over the last almost 8 years had attained the status of a quasi-national airline, the only surviving passenger airline after AfricaOne, East African and Skyjet all went bust, did not seem to matter to those intent to bring it down. Tens of millions of US Dollars had been invested in and spent by Air Uganda, start-up losses absorbed by the shareholders and 231 Ugandans employed, most of them highly skilled, the majority of whom are now out of job.

Calls for a formal Commission of Enquiry have become louder and more persistent of late to have the UCAA management appear and testify under oath, knowing fully well the consequences should one commit perjury. ‘Only if they are forced to give sworn testimony will there be a chance to get to the bottom of this. Unsworn statements in such a case are useless. They should be made to reveal what they did under oath, the Ugandan public and the aviation industry has a right to get the truth into the open’ said a regular Ugandan aviation source, echoing the sentiments of the 231 staff of Air Uganda, the staff of the other airlines shut down and those of airlines no longer able to fly beyond Uganda’s borders, confined to purely domestic flights at a loss of hundreds of millions of Uganda Shillings in revenue.

Regulatory staff in the East African region have in private also made it clear that they were at a loss to comprehend the action taken by their Ugandan colleagues though publicly none of the regional CAA’s has given public comments to the events which took place in Uganda on and after the 17th of June. Notably though has CASSOA, the East African Community Civil Aviation Safety and Security Oversight Agency stepped in, or rather was brought in together with some Kenyan experts to conduct the recertification of the affected airlines, again a sign that the powers that be no longer trust the staff of the UCAA to do their job independently and fairly.

The last ICAO audit of Uganda revealed some staggering failures to adhere to international standards as the graphs below will demonstrate and the just concluded audit was, according to the source close to the UCAA, creating fear and panic at the UCAA that their continued failure to lift standards to global average could result in not only the country being cited with a SSC but as a result the key staff themselves facing a probe and possible axe for not doing their jobs properly.

It is clear from these statistics that Uganda failed to meet not only global standards but also those of key neighboring countries in the areas of legislation, licensing, operations and air navigation services, the latter showing the widest compliance gap.

While the results of the recent ICAO audit have not yet been published, it remains to be seen how the UCAA performed this time and if their brutal demolition of the Ugandan aviation sector will have saved their necks or if they themselves are next to be given notice without any further ado. Ordinarily would ICAO have to publish their audit findings within 45 days after the exercise has been concluded, a period now well expired, and that again has raised questions why ICAO should sit on the findings and not publish them in a more timely fashion to put speculation to rest and put the fact out, if and where the UCAA failed to meet global standards.

After the grounding of in particular Air Uganda seats into regional destinations were suddenly short, resulting in air fare increases and overbooked flights, and again it took weeks for the regulators to fathom the damage they had done to the economy of the country before then hastily granting fifth freedom rights to foreign airlines to uplift traffic from Entebbe to such destinations like Juba, where Air Uganda was the predominant airline before they were shut down.

In a twist full of irony, which might have escaped the regulators in their glass and marble tower in Entebbe, has it turned out however that one of these airlines has not attained the industry standard of an IATA Operational Safety Audit, in short IOSA Certification, something Air Uganda had passed, first three years ago and then again last year when the renewal audit was carried out, passed by the airline with flying colors. While the UCAA position is that it is their audit which matters to get and hold an AOC, industry observers and Ugandan aviators were swift to point out that any airline holding IOSA Certification has surely passed global industry standards before going on to ask: ‘What value if any, considering the more recent events and (mis)behavior at the UCAA, a regulator which failed half of the required pass marks in the last ICAO audit, could the Ugandan system truly add to that’.

What is clear that aviation in Uganda is now at a crossroads. Tens of millions of US dollars in investments, something the country actively promotes, have been all but destroyed and perhaps worse has the UCAA lost all legitimacy and authority, notwithstanding that the word ‘authority’ remains in their title. Leading aviators in Uganda are in agreement that trust and honest cooperation has been severely damaged if not destroyed for years to come and that they, as many in the public domain, expect a major house cleaning at the UCAA head office in coming weeks and months to provide a fresh start and a new personnel platform from where trust can slowly be restored. Will Ugandan aviation ever be the same again, will the shareholders of the grounded airlines find the funds, or be willing to reinvest more multi millions of Dollars in Uganda, considering the rogue nature of the treatment they received?

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About the author

editor

Editor in chief is Linda Hohnholz.