26 November 2007

Sudan Airways Grounded Again

Nairobi — Sudan Airways has suspended its flights to Entebbe again, eight months after the route was re-launched.

"At the moment, we are not flying," said an official at the Sudan Airways office, who however declined to give more information, referring The EastAfrican to the district manager for Uganda, Ramadan Mohd Abdalla, who was out of the country.

Though slow business is cited as the main reason - the carrier has been struggling with bookings of less than half of its 120-passenger capacity on its weekly flight from Khartoum via Juba to Entebbe - industry sources blame the pullout on problems with aircraft availability and the firm's failure to manage the route. Business travellers especially found its single weekly frequency inconvenient.

However, officials at the Uganda Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) said they were not aware that the airline was no longer flying.

In May, Mr Abdalla told The EastAfrican, "Not many people know about our operations yet. We are transporting more cargo than passengers, but even this is minimal."

The slow take off of business forced the airline, in May 2005, to suspend its earlier plans to operate three flights a week to Entebbe via Juba and another from Khartoum to Entebbe via Nairobi.

The airline had banked on the fact that it is not only operating the biggest aircraft on the route - Boeing 737-200 - but was also the only national carrier, which it hoped would give it an edge over the smaller operators dominating the market.

Two private Ugandan operators - Royal Daisy Airlines and Eagle Air - operate on the route with propeller driven aircraft.

Mr Abdallah said he was confident that the national carrier would soon take over the route with its competitive fares. Indeed, the re-entry of Sudan Airways was expected to reduce fares, however this has not happened. The airline has been charging $500 return, though a new lower fare estimated to cost $450 return was expected soon.

Sudan Airways was forced off the Entebbe route in May 1995 when relations between Kampala and Khartoum soured.

The airline first resumed flights to Entebbe in May 2005 but withdrew after a few months, citing lack of business. This left a void that Royal Daisy and Eagle quickly filled.

Royal Daisy flies six times a week to Juba, while Eagle goes there thrice a week. The former also charters flights to Malakat in northern Sudan from Juba.

Sudan Airways recently announced the purchase of new aircraft - A300, A310 and a A320 Airbus as well as a Boeing 737.

The carrier also resumed flights to Kenya last year after an eight-year absence.

Its absence was the result of the US-imposition sanctions on Sudan in 1997, which were lifted following a peace deal signed in Nairobi in January 2005 ending two decades of civil war in the South.

The latest suspension comes just as startup Air Uganda has launched a thrice weekly service to Juba.

Speaking to The EastAfrican, Air Uganda commercial director Vittorio Scabbia said they hoped to leverage the capacity of their DC 9 to develop the route into a vibrant business.

In spite of the turbulent return of Sudan Airways, Uganda's Entebbe International Airport has recently recorded increased flight frequencies with international passengers and cargo doubling, according to the CAA.

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