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Uganda Airlines plane

Airbus, Boeing go head-to-head in battle for Uganda Airlines order

After a duel in 2018 for the supply of Uganda Airlines long-haul fleet that ended with Airbus’ A330-800neo carrying the day with an order for two aircraft, the world’s two largest aircraft manufacturers are back in the trenches, this time for a potential order of up to six aircraft.

Although it is an outlier, Brazil’s Embraer is also understood to have thrown its hat in the ring, making for a three-way competition.

Delegations from Airbus and Boeing were in Kampala this week to make pitches for their respective models, as Uganda Airlines approaches decision time for a selection of the aircraft that will power its mid-range passenger and cargo fleets.

Industry sources confirmed that at different times during this past week, teams from both manufacturers met with Uganda Airlines management and officials from key aviation stakeholder organisations such the Ministry of Works and Transport as well as sector regulator Uganda Civil Aviation Authority.

Confirmed meetings

Without divulging details, Uganda Airlines chief executive Jenifer Bamuturaki confirmed the meetings.

“Everyone is pitching: Airbus is pitching, Boeing is pitching and Embraer is pitching, but as Uganda Airlines, what we are interested in is a mid-range aircraft,” she told The EastAfrican.

The airline urgently needs an aircraft to fill the gap between the 76-seat Mitsubishi CRJ-900 and the 257-seat A330-800. Although the operational radius of the CRJ-900 can cover the airline’s envisaged African route network, it is severely weight-limited, imposing a trade-off between loading passengers and baggage.

There is also a financial imperative to the midrange. Uganda Airlines, which saw its loss widen to Ush266 billion ($72.5 million) for the 2021-22 fiscal year, partly blames its financial position on slow route development and a mismatch between passenger volumes and the higher cost of operating its Airbus A330 on the Entebbe-Dubai route — its longest sector.

Because of the passenger profile on the Dubai route (mainly traders), the airline is not maximising yield from the A330 because its business and premium economy cabins, which have a combined 48 seats out of the 257 on board mostly go unsold.

Aviation fuel price

A spike in the price of aviation fuel has pushed the hourly cost of operating the type to $15,000, making it uneconomical to operate on some routes.  In an earlier interview with this newspaper, Ms Bamuturaki said that they were interested in an aircraft that can adequately serve the heavier routes such as those planned for West Africa, while also capable of substituting the A330 on routes such as Dubai, London and Mumbai, which are expected to launch later this year.

“We want an aircraft that can do Dubai, Mumbai or London when we have low loads. We also want a mid-range one on those routes where the A330 is either too big or unavailable,” she explained.

At stake for the manufacturers is an order of up to six aircraft: Four in the 100-plus seat category and two freighters; one with a capacity of 30 tonnes to serve regional routes and another with 60-tonne capacity for the intercontinental market.

Buy two tranches

The aircraft will be bought in two tranches, with two passenger and a cargo planes coming in the short term followed by another pair of passenger aircraft within a five-year timeframe.

Sources familiar with the discussions say Airbus is offering its A321, but it was not clear which specific variant of the type it was pitching. Meanwhile, Boeing is understood to have made presentations on all variants of its B737 Max family for the airline to select.

If range and size are the primary considerations, then the race will be between Airbus’ A321-LR and A321-XLR versus Boeing’s Max 8 and 9. With a capacity of between 162 and 178 passengers in a two-class configuration, and a range of 3,550 nautical miles, the Max-8 or its larger sibling the Max-9 with similar range but with five extra seats, can easily reach London.

The Max-7 with 3,850nm range and 138-153 passenger capacity, and the Max-10 with 3,300nm range but with 188-204 passengers are, however, likely out of contention for now, because they are yet to secure US Federal Aviation Administration certification.

Also, the Max-10 would also be restricted in terms of range while the Max 7 would impose a seat-mile cost penalty because of limited seat capacity.

According to analysts, however, a big selling point for Boeing is scalability. Looking at an eventual fleet of four aircraft, between the Max-7 and 9, Uganda Airlines would have more flexibility in managing capacity in response to varying market opportunities. But that will come at the price of fleet complexity and added training and tooling costs.  At a minimum of 180 seats, the A321 could prove too big on some regional routes.