In its review of the Covid-19 lockdown, Uganda reopened her Airport, allowing the resumption of international air services starting October 2020. Eng. Ayub Sooma, Director of Airports and Aviation Security at the Uganda Civil Aviation Authority, Michael Wakabi, of Nnyonyi Magazine learned of the measures that Entebbe International Airport has introduced to ensure safety of the users and the travelling public. Excerpts
As Uganda reopens its airspace following six months of Covid-19 lockdown, how prepared is Entebbe International Airport?
During this period when commercial passenger flights were suspended, the Uganda Civil Aviation Authority engage stakeholders to develop Standard Operating Procedures to guard against the spread of Covid-19 through air travel when commercial passenger flight operations resume.
For Entebbe International Airport, a number of major issues were agreed on with input from all players the airport has prepared for resumption of commercial passenger flights.
We have introduced glass shields for frontline staff to reduce direct contact with travellers while handling travel documents. This is in effect at both the Immigration Counters and also at the Check-in counters. There is also a plan to automate all doors in the airport passenger terminal to reduce physical touch. Wash rooms will also be fitted with proximity taps.
Arrangements are being made to reconfigure the Boarding lounges by removing partitions. The plan is to have open spaces that will provide more sitting room in the terminal to facilitate social distancing. To minimize congestion at peak hour, we have revised the flight schedules by increasing on the time interval between flights to match the available facilities.
The Authority has also put in place facilities for sanitisation, and social distancing. We have also implemented a regular disinfection regime of the frequently touched surfaces within the terminal. We also take temperature readings from the first contact a person has with Entebbe International Airport and at different points within the terminal.
Will the airport be accessed by the public as the need arises?
In a way yes. But we are also going to limit the number of ‘meeters’ and ‘greeters’, who pick-up and drop-off passengers to avoid crowds at the airport. The few that will be allowed to access the airport will be required to observe the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) in place.
How much time will arriving passengers spend through the formalities before exit?
We have scheduled airlines with a spread of two hours. Meaning that is the time we are given to process each arriving flight. It does not matter whether the aircraft is big or small. That is the standard we have set for ourselves.
The current Covid-19 tests take long to return a result. What kind of test will you be using at the airport to ensure a shorter turnround of results for the passenger that requires a test?
First of all, pre-testing is mandatory for all passengers traveling from one airport to another. That means that prior to departure, a passenger would have taken a Covid-19 test. At Entebbe International Airport, we recognize the results of that test if it was taken within a 72-hour window. When you arrive here, we assume you have taken the test. But in coordination with the Ministry of Health, there will be procedures for screening passengers whose temperature profile and other symptoms raise a red flag.
It is worth noting that when passengers come from an originating airport and are found positive when they get to another, the originating airport will suffer a ratings penalty because it will be regarded as high risk. That is an incentive for airports to ensure that whoever passes through their gates has taken a certified Covid-19 test before departure.
What are the key considerations that have informed the opening up process?
We have been in touch with international regulatory bodies for the industry and received guidance materials. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), Airports Council International (ACI) and the World Health Organisation (WHO), came up with recommendations on the procedures that need to be put in place for resumption of operations, for the global industry’s recovery.
The guidelines, which Uganda has also put into consideration are intended to enhance safety of passengers in relation to Covid-19 measures across the globe.
The new Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) will inevitably lead to changes in the travel experience, what have you done to minimize inconveniences?
With the Covid-19 pandemic, changes are expected in the airport passenger facilitation processes across the globe. Before the pandemic, a passenger could take 45 minutes to go through the facilitation process. However, there will now be more safety guidelines to be followed before a passenger departs, and on arrival at the airport.
To minimize the inconveniences, passengers are now required to arrive at the airport at least 4 hours to their flights in order to have adequate time to go through the added Port-Health screening procedures.
Also, on departure, passengers will be required to have authentic and valid Covid-19 health certificates from the Ministry of Health or undergo tests at the airport before departure. The same will apply to arriving passengers with valid Covid-19 certificates required from the country of origin.
What level of inter-agency cooperation is necessary for a smoother travel experience?
Stakeholder engagement and teamwork has always been emphasized at Entebbe International Airport because there are various agencies providing services. The enforcement of the SOPs will be a collective responsibility by every stakeholder operating at the airport during commercial passenger operations.
The Uganda Civil Aviation Authority has had an understanding with the Ministry of Health to run the Port Health services at the airport (departure and arrival). Other local and international agencies have financially contributed Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) to safeguard the frontline staff and passengers during the screening process.
A lot of stakeholder coordination is expected between the airport management, policy makers (Government), airlines and airport service providers for a smoother passenger facilitation process.
From an operation standpoint, what lessons have been learnt from the repatriation flights that operated during the lockdown period?
While the airport had been closed to commercial flights, Government through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs approved various evacuation and repatriation flights through the airport.
The flights were our first experience of what it will take to observe physical distancing and profiling of passengers. A number of challenges experienced in handling these flights have been discussed extensively with stakeholders, and solutions devised. The flight schedules agreed with airlines were partly informed by this experience.
But perhaps the single most important outcome was that we have been able to validate the accuracy of our scanners. All arriving passengers that were picked out having abnormally high temperatures by our thermal scanners, were subsequently confirmed by the Ministry of Health temperature guns. And indeed, all of them tested positive for Covid-19. This experience enhanced our confidence in the accuracy of the thermal scanners at Entebbe International Airport. We think the accuracy levels of this equipment are above 99%. The scanners can screen a passenger within a radius of 30 metres, triggering an alarm with every suspect case.
How should the travelling public be prepared going forward?
Passengers will be required to arrive at the airport at least 4 hours to the flight in order to have adequate time to go through the port health screening procedures.
Passengers should travel light and dropped or picked at the airport by not more than a driver.
Passengers should have valid Covid-19 health certificates for the last 72 hours before travel out of or into the country.
All passengers will be expected to wear face masks, regularly sanitise and observe social distancing while in the terminal and at the airport generally.