A series of narrow escapes meant the airline was comparable to an accident waiting to happen
Aeroplanes belonging to Air Uganda suffered at least a dozen mechanical faults in transit over the 12-months period before the eventual suspension of the airline's flights on June 17, The Observer has established.
Information available to The Observer suggests that despite the airline's protestations, Air Uganda could as well have been described as an accident waiting to happen.
Flights for the Entebbe-based airline were suspended by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), along with the operations of two other local airlines, following a seven-day audit of its operations, which found a considerable number of concerns.
Confidential correspondences between the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and Air Uganda, copies of which this newspaper has obtained, indicate that the airline had been grappling with problems for nearly 12 months before the eventual suspension of its operations.
Between January 29, 2014 and June 10, 2014, for instance, CAA recorded 11 incidents, including mid-air mechanical failures, involving Air Uganda flights (See details in table). CAA also accuses Air Uganda of sweeping a number of other incidents under the carpet rather than report them to local authorities as required by international regulations governing the aviation industry.
In an April 16, 2014 letter, Samuel Muneeza, the director of safety security and economic regulation, warns the accountable manager at Air Uganda that "the repeated and recurring safety incident occurrences reflect a serious and considerable deterioration of safety standards" in the operations of Air Uganda's flights.
"This trend of safety incident occurrences is unacceptable, and more specifically when the incidents are observed to re-occur almost on a daily basis," wrote Muneeza.
By the time of the suspension, Air Uganda was operating daily return flights from Entebbe International airport to Juba in South Sudan, Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, Nairobi in Kenya and Mogadishu in Somalia. However, in a lengthy interview with The Observer, the CEO of Air Uganda, Cornwell Muleya, said the aviation authority was using their airline as a smokescreen for deficiencies within CAA that were discovered by ICAO.
Air Uganda fights back:
"The suspension of Air Uganda has nothing to do with Air Uganda itself. There was an audit of the Civil Aviation Authority. It is not the airlines which were being audited. ICAO were auditing CAA and they found deficiencies within CAA and then the authority, to correct their mistake, they chose to withdraw the AOCs [(Air Operator Certificates) of] all the airlines registered in Uganda," he said.
According to Muleya, it is not unusual for any airline anywhere around the world to have incidents since they are all required by international aviation law to log in anything that does not go according to plan in an aircraft.
"There are incidents in all airlines on every aircraft everyday because each item and component on an aircraft is logged and is regulated. It is not like driving a car so every day, airlines report [incidents] according to the regulations worldwide," he said.
Despite Maleya's arguments, the Spokesperson of CAA, Ignie Igundura, remained adamant that Air Uganda officials were grasping on straws.
"When a doctor fails in his administration of drugs to a patient, do you blame a doctor or a patient? So, how can CAA fail to perform and then an airline is suspended?" asked Igundura, before adding; "If they can concentrate on dealing with the areas that were found to be wanting, that would help them a lot."
Start of investigations:
According to official documents that The Observer has seen, CAA started investigating Air Uganda in August 2013 following three incidents involving the airline's planes. In an August 22, 2013 internal memo, the principal air traffic management officer/officer in charge of air navigation services (PATMO/O'C ANS Entebbe) at CAA, Madina Ndagire informs the CAA Manager of Flight Safety to investigate reports of three incidents in which planes belonging to Air Uganda had suffered nose wheel steering problems, with two of the incidents happening on one plane.
The memo said the first incident happened on July 17, 2013, when a pilot reported problems with a Kigali-bound plane, which was returned to parking at Entebbe. The passengers were later flown in a different aircraft. In the second incident of July 20, 2013, an Air Uganda aircraft enroute to Dar es Salaam was forced to abort its journey and return to Entebbe 47 minutes later after the pilot reported a problem with the plane's nose wheel steering.
The third incident occurred on July 22, involving an Air Uganda flight to Juba. "Immediately after departure, [the pilot] requested to hold overhead NN due to [a] problem with [the] nose wheel steering. Landed afterwards at 0744 hrs," says the memo.
After the investigation, the director of safety security and economic regulation wrote an August 31, 2013 letter asking the management of Air Uganda why they had not submitted reports of the three July incidents.
"This letter is to express [the] safety concern about Air Uganda's non-compliance with the regulation requirements for reporting of operations incidents, and observed un-airworthy conditions of the aircraft," said the letter. It also asked Air Uganda to submit before September 14, 2013 reports on corrective actions that were taken.
The letter, signed by Henry Kitaka, said the failure by Air Uganda to report the incident was in breach of Regulation 25(1)(t) of the Civil Aviation (Airworthiness) regulations. The regulation requires an operator of an aircraft registered in Uganda to report to CAA any failures, malfunction or defect that could result in interruption of a flight, unscheduled change of aircraft en-route, unscheduled stop or diversion from a route, as well as known or suspected technical difficulties or malfunctions.
The concerns were resurrected in early 2014 when CAA made a visit on March 25 to the Air Uganda maintenance facility. The purpose of the visit, according to a March 26 CAA internal memo, was to verify whether Air Uganda had adhered to conditions on which it was granted a renewal of its aircraft maintenance organisation (AMO) approval.
However, according to an April 4, 2014 letter from CAA to Air Uganda, the airline did not meet five of the maintenance standards required for conducting aircraft maintenance. The letter said Air Uganda had sub-contracted the Air Burkina Faso AMO to maintain its planes yet the AMO was not only approved by CAA, but there was also no formal agreement between Air Uganda AMO and its Burkina Faso counterpart.
CAA also complained that Air Uganda AMO had made changes in its management personnel without formally notifying CAA, Air Uganda's AMO SPOs was not on display in the premises as required by law, and a list of certified staff was not readily available for inspection because the relevant page had been removed from the MPM.
"[The] soft copy shown to inspectors bore names of engineers who had long left the AMO," said the letter, which also instructed Air Uganda to submit a corrective action plan before April 10, 2014.
More safety incidents:
CAA's impatience with Air Uganda is documented in an April 16, 2014 letter in which the aviation agency asks the company to carry out an investigation to establish the causes of the growing safety incidents and submit a conclusive report of its findings before April 23.
"Please note that any significant non-compliance, absence of required acceptable procedures and actions that will be viewed as deliberate disregard and/or deviation from established requirements may lead to suspension of the AOC until acceptable corrective actions have been taken," wrote Muneeza.
According to the CAA letter to Air Uganda's accountable manager, the authority intended to use the information in the report to carry out its own comprehensive audit on all Air Uganda's operation in order to review its compliance status of the internationally-established safety standards.
ICAO audit team visits:
The Observer was unable to establish what transpired after Air Uganda submitted its report to CAA. However, on June 11-17, an audit mission from the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) visited Uganda. At the end of the ICAO auditors' visit, CAA withdrew the Air Operator Certificates (AOCs) for the international operations of Air Uganda, Uganda Air Cargo and Transafrik Uganda Limited.
The AOC is a document that authorises airlines to mount flights. In the immediate aftermath of the suspension, CAA officials and their Air Uganda counterparts got locked up in a blame game, with each accusing the other of causing the suspension by failing the ICAO audit.
Maleya, however, told The Observer that withdrawal of AOCs affected all airlines registered in Uganda, and not just Air Uganda.
"The entire aviation system in Uganda is closed at the moment," he said. "Nobody registered in Uganda can fly [out of the country] at the moment because the CAA was found to be deficient in their procedures to issue licences. They cannot start deflecting the [blame] to airline incidents. That is just a smokescreen."
Although he did not make a direct response to Maleya's claim, Igundura said CAA is currently working on ensuring that suspended airlines fulfil the requirements and receive fresh AOCs.
"They are right now going through a re-certification process, and that is where we are concentrating our efforts. If they want a media debate, we could take it to another level, and that is not what I want to go into," he said.
Cost to Uganda:
The suspension of Air Uganda, which is the leading local airline, has had an immediate impact on the cost of travel around the region for Ugandans.
Shortly after Air Uganda was grounded, the East African region's biggest airline, Kenya Airways, increased its return flight fares by more than twice to between $500 and $1,500. (See: Air Uganda's suspension leaves flight nightmare)