Air Tanzania starts direct flights from Dar es Salaam to Entebbe and Bujumbura later next month, bringing competition to the doorstep of Kenya Airways and RwandaAir -- and convenience and savings to the regional traveller.
The Kenyan and Rwandan national carriers have over the years dominated these routes via their respective hubs in Nairobi and Kigali.
The Tanzania national carrier, which is barely into its second year of operation, revealed that it will start a four-times-a week direct flight to Entebbe from Dar es Salaam and a three times a week flight to Bujumbura, on two routes which other airlines had tried to feed connecting traffic to their hubs.
The direct flights offer relief to regional travellers who have had to endure the complex and unattractive connecting options on these two routes, which are routinely time-consuming and costly.
For one to fly between Tanzania and Uganda, a connection must be made through Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport or Rwanda's Kigali International Airport.
Air Tanzania will charge $363 for a return ticket to Entebbe, flying on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.
Its Bujumbura clients will pay $358 for a return ticket with flights scheduled for Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. This is less than the average of $390 that travellers pay to get to Bujumbura and Dar es Salaam via either Nairobi, Kigali or Addis, with an additional three to six hours connecting time.
Service and brand
Direct flights to Uganda and Burundi will eat into the earnings of Kenya Airways, which has enjoyed a near monopoly of the Dar-Nairobi-Entebbe route, its most profitable in the region.
KQ's 15 years of dominance at the Entebbe hub could end, especially if Uganda revives its national carrier by November.
Kenya's Transport Principal Secretary Paul Maringa however said the plans by Uganda and Tanzania would not affect KQ, given that part of the efforts to revamp the airline are aimed at making it competitive in the region.
"The increased competition will not affect the operations of Kenya Airways. We will bank on the service and brand to get an edge over the competition. Kenya Airways remains dominant on most of the routes and the expected flight to the US will give it an edge within the region," Prof Maringa said.
KQ has at least four daily flights to Dar es Salaam, five to Entebbe, four to Lusaka and at least one more other daily flight to Livingstone (both in Zambia), routes that Air Tanzania will be seeking to claw back in the short term as it charts its recovery.
Nicanor Sabula, the chief executive of the Kenya Association of Travel Agents, said the sector welcomes Air Tanzania as it will introduce competition and cut the cost of flying.
"We will be cautiously optimistic because we understand the sustainability question that arises in running an airline. The history of passenger numbers and traffic on particular routes has seen some airlines scale down frequency or even introduce connectivity in a bid to remain afloat. So do not be surprised if (Air Tanzania) introduce another connection via Kigali because these routes are a game of numbers for an airline seeking to make money," Mr Sabula said.
Already, both Kenya Airways and RwandAir have been doing connections out of Kigali to Bujumbura for onward flights to Nairobi, mostly driven by the low numbers from Bujumbura.
Charles Kahuthu, the chief executive officer of the East African Chamber of Commerce, said that the lack of the traffic on some of these routes has been the biggest challenge.
"We have seen an increase in trade and business opportunities between Dar and Entebbe. Dar es Salaam has been very aggressive in Uganda marketing its port and this has driven up trade between the two countries. This is the market this airline will be keen on serving," Mr Kahuthu said.
Air Tanzania is expecting a fourth aircraft, a CS 300 Bombardier, from Canada in November, for both domestic and regional routes.
The airline also plans to launch new routes to Harare, Johannesburg, and Lusaka. It will then consider the Rwanda and Nairobi routes.
Last weekend, it received the first of two Boeing 787-8 Dreamliners, which should start serving domestic destinations including Mwanza, Kilimanjaro and also Entebbe and Bujumbura, in the first week of August, after the fleet crew completes training.
"We expect to use this aircraft on the Mumbai route and will later fly to Guangzhou in China as we seek business on the Asian routes," Mr Matindi said.
Currently, the airline operates one international flight to Moroni in the Comoros Islands. Domestically, it flies to Mbeya, Dodoma, Songea, Mwanza, Mbeya, Tabora, Kigoma, Mtwara and Bukoba.
"We are also adding new domestic routes in Tanzania to include Iringa, Mpanda, Tanga as well as Shinyanga, which will push our destinations to 17 by the end of the year," Mr Matindi said.
The EastAfrican understands that Air Tanzania is also in the process of establishing its own ground handling, maintenance, repair and overhaul hangar facility, the construction of an executive lounge and in-flight catering units at the Julius Nyerere International Airport as part of its restructuring and growth.
"Just over half the routes (12 out of 22) are operated at lower than daily frequency and just over a third (8 out of 22) are operated twice daily or more. This low frequency makes short-duration trips (departing and returning the same day) difficult, whereas these are particularly important for business trips. The situation varies by country -- while nearly half the routes from Kenya operate twice daily or more, no routes from Burundi operate at that frequency and few do so in the other EAC countries," the report says.