By Gyagenda Semakula
I woke up at 3:30am on Wednesday, August 28, 2019 and made up to be able to catch my flight to Nairobi. My only reason for this trip was to be one of the very first commercial travelers of the revamped Uganda Airlines; a day after it took to the skies on its official launch to the same destination.
This is indisputably the first commercial flight in two decades as the national carrier embarks on a long journey to register its presence among global competitors.
I fumbled with the online booking system which was a really unfriendly and couldn’t easily complete my booking.
I called the airline offices.
The response was instant.
I gave them a tick.
I gladly gave my feedback and also made some suggestions. I thought I should be a contributor and not a cynic especially if the love for your country is not prompted and conditional. The unfriendly system eventually gave me a reservation confirmation; QRDHVR. I again called the office to ask for easier and quicker payment options. They were several and I chose the cash option.
I went to the airline office at the airport and paid USD277.20 (1,053,000Ugx).
Just before departure on Wednesday morning, I went to the same office where I inquired from a staff who introduced herself as Rosemary, how many we were. She joyfully and with a very big smile said “you are seven onboard.”
I imagined who the other six patriotic comrades were! I didn’t ask whether I was the first or seventh passenger to get booked but this was not important.
I also learnt later that one of us was booked to fly jambojet but missed the flight and found solace at UR. KQ must have felt terrible here but thank God for the misfortune that enabled a countryman to be written in history and a memoir worth the tale.
He made it to the list of the infamous eight.
The excitement started as the airline staff at the check-in counters became so ecstatic and elated to see us.
As I approached the counters, the first passengers that I jolted into were Usher Wilson Owere; NOTU Chairman General and his wife Evelyn. My excitement took another turn because Owere and I are alumni of Tororo College (TC). I joked about it that TC is “in things”!
The feeling was like that of a first time traveler. But yes, we were first time travelers on the mighty Uganda Airlines’ commercial flights. We were led through the immigration to gate number 2 for boarding where we found the other passengers. None of us looked at the other as usual travel strange passengers in transit.
We were all smiles at each other.
Everybody seemed surprised at seeing the other. The surprise to my eyes was Alon Mwesigwa and Oliver Nakatudde both journalists working with Uganda Radio Network. They too were surprised to see another journalist who they thought was on official duty.
In affirmation, I told them my day’s duty was to show solidarity by supporting my own carrier and exhibit patriotism.
We were led to the CRJ900 Bombardier flight UR202. My intuition immediately drove me into a search on and beneath the seats just to be sure that there are no rats on board. There was none and I predict there will never be any. The beautiful interior and the newness of the aircraft consumed part of me for some moments. How I wish we can jealously guard and maintain it in that shape!
The seventy-six seating capacity aircraft has twelve business class seats that were not booked for this flight. All the eight passengers were booked in economy class. We were welcomed on board by flight attendants Kasemire Roni, Johnson Mugume and flight purser (chief flight attendant) Asiimwe Neema.
As is the aviation tradition, we heeded to the usual flight instructions in very clear and audible English by one of the crew members shortly before take-off. As a Pan Africanist, I did not miss any of my cherished native language for the first time. I was gratified and contented with the instructions in English. I only wish they could integrate Kiswahili for us East Africans because the on board safety cards and other writings in the aircraft are bi-lingual.
Captain Charles Karabarinde assisted by First Officer Denis Chotum shortly taxed to the run way at 6:05am. History was recorded at 6:13am when the tires of the CRJ900 got off the run way at take-off. The other crew members were First Officers Tina Drazu and Cheboy Rashid who were on flight in training and carrying out observations.
Passengers onboard included Owere, his wife Evelyn, Emmanuel Kwezi Tabaro, businessmen Joseph Kasigazi and Peter Ssenkungu as well as journalists Alon Mwesigwa and Olive Nakatudde and yours trully who all paid for their return air tickets.
The usually short air trip to Nairobi was smooth with a tail push. We were served with the expected Ugandan cuisine of Jesa yoghurt, Wavah water specifically bottled for Uganda Airlines, bread, coffee, fruit salads and Lato butter.
The teabags and juices (Pick n Peel) were the Kenyan brands on board.
I did not probe into why we did not have Mukwano, Kayonza or Uganda Tea or our own Cheers of Delight Uganda. As a stakeholder and now supporter of the carrier, I will request to know why these did not merit. Nevertheless, this could not kill our experience and joy of being the first fliers at an altitude of 33,000ft high.
The smooth touch-down at exactly 7am aroused an equivocal applause from the passengers on this historic maiden commercial flight that touched the ground five minutes ahead of its scheduled landing at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
Businessman Kasigazi in a very loud voice said, “Bombadier has arrived.”
We were all thrilled and clapped to show how excited we were. The crew too couldn’t hide their excitement for this achievement. The next voice we heard was from the cockpit when the pilot announced to us the welcome custom of a water salute that happens whenever a plane is making a maiden flight at a particular airport. It happened as we slowly taxed on the run way.
Another memorable experience!
As news started going out to the now waking up social media jacks of all trade; lambastes, criticism and abuses to everybody and everyone including the innocent passengers crept into space.
One called us insane for flying the Pearl. Another prophesied that eight is the biggest number that this airline will ever record.
Others wondered how and why the airline would fly for only eight million shillings!
This reminded me of the story of Coca Cola which is the most recognized brand in the world. It is really a tall order to imagine that UR is the next Coca Cola but why would we wish it away on its maiden flight?
How was the Virgin Atlantic born?
Richard Branson’s started his Virgin Atlantic after getting stuck in Puerto Rico while trying to get to the British Virgin Islands. His flight was cancelled because they didn’t have enough passengers to warrant the flight.
He hired a plane and borrowed a blackboard and as a joke, he wrote Virgin Airlines on the top of the blackboard, $39 one way to BVI. He went out round all the passengers who had been bounced and lined them up on his first plane. What could not warrant one flight was what Branson needed to start his own airline. If Branson was a Ugandan, he would cast his dream into the deepest pit because of social media deriders and satirists.
On arrival at JKIA, some ground and immigration staff were shocked that we were not staff of Uganda Airlines. They couldn’t imagine that we were passengers just like others that were also arriving and transiting.
One asked me whether I had really paid for my ticket. I gave him evidence. He was surprised!
I knew we were up for something beyond what the eyes can see.
We checked out and spent the rest of the day in Nairobi as we waited for our return trip later in the evening. Yes, there was some visible drama in the evening. The first instance was tossing us to which terminal to access for check in.
We managed all these huddles and checked in. Our flight UR205 was scheduled and we could see it on the screens. When we got to boarding gate 5 at 21:30hrs, nobody seemed to know what to do with us.
The UR staff excitement had already faded into oblivion. One spoke to the other in Luo and punctuated their talk with the usual Kenyan Kiswahili.
They couldn’t imagine that any of us knew what they were saying. I surprised them when I responded in Kiswahili. They couldn’t imagine that any of us knew what they were saying.
I got aroused when she said that the plane had flown back with passengers on it. I knew who that plane had come for and we were all eagerly waiting for the return experience. I told her that none of the passengers had gone because we were all just before her.
She rudely said “I don’t work for Uganda Airlines.”
I insisted that we were six passengers and that we were all still waiting.
At about 22:30, we were led by a ground staff through the emergency exit to the van that drove us to the eagerly waiting UR205 vessel. We were I, Mwesigwa, Nakatudde, Kwezi Tabaro and two other passengers Fred Byabashaija and Makayi Wakooba who is a flight instructor at Wilson Airport.
The crew members were Capt. Emmanuel Mutebi who was assisted by Capt. Michael Etyang as the FO. The flight purser was Mugabi Daniel and attendants Musoke William and Annette Tinka. In observation were Capt. Fred Kint and FO Ivan Massa. There was also a lady engineer Neka who we were told was passing out the cabin crew.
The flight was equally smooth and touched the ground at exactly 23:58hrs.
If only the abettors of impunity and corruption and those who only rant and fight for their clansmen and tribesmen whenever found guilty should stop and value this as a national asset for Uganda and Ugandans, its position in the market is a reality.
Uganda Airlines should study Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne’s Blue Ocean Strategy.
I am proud to be in the annals of Uganda Airlines as one of their first cash clients. Let’s fly the Crane to the Pearl of Africa!
Gyagenda Semakula is a PRO/ Journalist
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