Uganda's aviation reputation has been left in tatters, after it emerged that the present airline crisis cuts deeper than Air Uganda. It now turns out that what the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) initially touted as a problem affecting only three airlines has grounded every single airline registered in Uganda.
An investigation by The Observer has established that CAA has barred at least five other holders of Ugandan air Operator's certificates (AOC) from operating commercial flights from the country. The additional victims of the suspension include Ndege Aviation, Kampala Aeroclub and Flight Training Centre (KAFTC), Air Surf and Asante Aviation.
Following a June 11-17 safety audit by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), CAA said it had withdrawn AOCs for three airlines registered in Uganda: Uganda Air Cargo, Air Uganda and Transafrik International.
CAA argued that the three airlines, whose suspension has raised a lot of public concern, had safety concerns that warranted them to satisfy certain safety benchmarks before they are allowed to resume operating international flights. However, what has hitherto unknown to the public is that six days after the closure of the trio, CAA wrote to more airlines withdrawing their AOCs.
Letters seen by The Observer indicate that Ndege Aviation and KAFTC received backdated letters (dated June 6) on June 23 revoking their AOCs and requiring them to reapply for new certificates. In a reply dated July 23, Ndege Accountable Manager Tim Cooper protested the communication from CAA, arguing that the actions being taken were flawed.
"Ndege is not prepared to apply to re-certify its AOC until such time as the authority explains what regulatory process is being applied," wrote Cooper. It was the second letter from Cooper after the authority didn't respond to his first letter dated July 9, which points out that withdrawing, amending and backdating their certificate is unlawful.
"Your actions and demands are outside of any regulatory framework that we can find within the civil aviation regulations and we are concerned that further capricious demands may be made of us by the CAA at any time in the future," Cooper wrote.
CAA found wanting:
Cooper argued in his letter that by withdrawing the licence, CAA was covering its own tracks through masking flaws discovered by ICAO during its June audit.
"Our inescapable conclusion can only be that your own processes in the issuance of our AOC were found wanting and that you expect Ndege now to pay the price of your incompetence," he noted.
In previous interviews, the chief executive officer of Air Uganda, Cornwell Muleya, has similarly insisted that whatever CAA has done since the ICAO audit is a form of damage control to preserve their reputation at the expense of the airline operators.
"What we understand is that the last auditors had some concerns," Muleya said. "The authority was not doing enough to supervise the industry."
Muleya argued that an ICAO safety audit done in 2008 found the CAA lacking on all fronts, with the country performing below the global average line on all grounds. The audit, which rates countries on eight areas, uses what they call "Effective Implementation" (EI) of each audit area, which is rated from 0 per cent to 100 percent, with 0 per cent being "not implemented" and 100 per cent being "fully implemented".
According to information on the ICAO website, the audited areas are legislation, organisation, licensing, operations, airworthiness, accident investigation, air navigation services and aerodromes. The audit says anything below 60 per cent, is considered unacceptable, while that above the line is considered best practice.
On all the eight areas, Uganda is below the global average line, with the most damning ones being the legislation where the country stands at 40 per cent, far below its neighbours Kenya at 80 percent and Rwanda at 77 per cent. The other is air navigation services where the country stands at just 20 percent against Kenya's 85 per cent. Air navigation services include equipment that enables pilots to easily communicate with the airport for safe landing and take-off.
The Observer has so far not been able to access the detailed findings of the June audit. However, according to airline executives, the recent audit still found CAA operations wanting and the global aviation regulator was this time round going to issue a significant safety concern warning to Uganda.
Muleya explained that "significant safety concerns" means a national civil aviation authority is incapable of looking after the sector.
"In most countries where that has happened, the airlines from that country are blacklisted not to fly to other countries. That is what has happened in DRC," noted Muleya.
"When you have these concerns on the authority, it stays for five years until the next audit. So, rather than having that stigma on Uganda for the next five years, CAA decided to withdraw what they had not done properly and ask the airlines to reapply, so that when they work quickly, the industry could recover without suffering for the next five years. It's not the airlines that are wrong; it is the authority which is deficient. It can't oversee the sector properly."
The action taken by CAA, wrote Cooper in his formal complaint, gives an impression that the international flights that Ndege had made from the last renewal in December 2013 up to July were outside the scope of their privileges, which he says was not the case.
"Can you confirm that the authority has the power to vary and re-issue documents retrospectively as you have done?" Coopers asked.
KAFTC, which runs Kajjansi airfield, has also written two protest letters to CAA, according to correspondences The Observer has obtained. In one of the letters, which is dated July 21 and by the company's director, Jeremy McKelvie, KAFTC reacted to a CAA advert, which mentions that the operations of only three airlines had been suspended due to safety concerns. The letter then questions why KAFTC's operations were suspended without any prior notice.
"We are writing to place on record that KAFTC have not received notice of any safety concerns on our aircraft or operations from the CAA. We also did not receive any communication from the CAA in regard to the amending of our valid AOC. Therefore, the amending and backdating of our air operator's certificate on June 6, 2014 with no notice or explanation to enable us to defend our position would seem to be in breach of regulation 97 of the air operator's certificate regulations," argues McKelvie.
"This amendment is causing serious financial loss to the company due to cancelled flights and our inability to bid for overseas contracts or charters for the foreseeable future."
Much as McKelvie doesn't disclose how much they have lost, Cooper revealed in a telephone conservation with The Observer that his company had lost $2 million (about Shs 5.1 billion) in the last one month of their suspension. Cooper also revealed that Air Surf and Asante Aviation lost some multimillion-dollar contracts to South Sudan and DRC.
"This scenario has put us five years back or even much longer. The number of flights at Kajjansi has reduced dramatically as a result of this," Cooper said.
The suspension has now forced some of the airlines, such as Air Uganda, to suspend their operations indefinitely and lay off some of their workers. Some of the affected airlines are now contemplating running to court to seek for compensation. In an email exchange seen by The Observer, where lawyer Allan Shonubi, is copied, both Ndege and Aeroclub say they are willing "to join suit and ride on Air Uganda's coat tails" if the leading local airline seeks damages from the CAA.
"What happened to Air Uganda is exactly the same as [what] happened to all the other Ugandan AOC holders. The big difference between Ndege and Aeroclub and Air Uganda is that there has been no traffic whatever between the CAA and us at Kajjansi that might be used to muddy the waters by implying that there are underlying safety concerns. There is nothing that the CAA can dig up against either of our Kajjansi companies. Naturally the CAA has not answered our letters," Cooper wrote in the email, also copied to businessman Patrick Bitature.
When contacted for comment on whether Air Uganda is considering taking CAA to court, CEO Muleya said "that is a prerogative I will hear from the board."