HL Deb 11 July 1927 vol 68 cc325-9

THE EARL OF DENBIGH rose to ask His Majesty's Government for information regarding the progress being made, and the arrangements for establishing a regular air service between Cairo, Uganda and East Africa; and to move for Papers. The noble Earl said: My Lords, very great interest has been taken for some time in the development of an air route up the Nile to the Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Tanganyika territories, and I need not remind your Lordships of the manner in which those countries are developing and the large interests that are coming to the front there. The population is said to be something like 20,000 Europeans, about 50,000 Indians and from 12,000,000 to 15,000,000 Africans, and I believe the import and export trade at present amounts to something like £25,000,000 annually, of which about half is with the United Kingdom and other parts of the British Empire. It must be apparent to everybody that facility of communications is the one great necessity for developing countries of that description, and this fact has been recognised already by the Colonial Office through the loans that have been sanctioned for the purpose of developing railway communication in those countries, and especially in Kenya and Tanganyika.

At present letters take from about three to four weeks to come from Kenya to England, coming round by sea along the coast to Mombasa; and from Uganda they take anything from four to six weeks. The result, I believe, is that this country has lost a good deal of trade that might have come here, but goes instead to Bombay, where it is done largely by Indians and Japanese, for the simple reason that letters and commercial samples can pass from East Africa to Bombay in about ten days as against the three to six weeks taken between East Africa and this country. Early last year an attempt was made to start this air service, and Captain Gladstone., on behalf of the North Sea Aerial and General Transport Company, inspected and reported upon the route as most excellent for seaplane work. It was proposed to run twelve experimental voyages, and it was estimated that something like £10,000 would be required for the purpose. I believe that the Sudan, Kenya and Uganda agreed to furnish about £2,000 each, and Captain Gladstone's company offered to find the remaining £4,000. A special seaplane was built and sent to Khartoum, but unfortunately it damaged a float on a hidden rock in the river and it was not able to proceed. Sir Sefton Brancker, whose name is familiar to your Lordships as that of a great pioneer of aerial routes, was there and lent an old Army air machine, which flew from Khartoum to Lake Victoria but, owing to engine trouble, came down in the lake and, while the people on board were saved, the machine itself was lost.

I am very anxious to know what further progress being made towards the development of this air route, because Captain Gladstone and, I believe, Sir Sefton Brancker also have stated in public that the route is ideal for a seaplane service. Great interest is being taken in the matter, both out there and in this country, and I believe the idea is that a weekly service could be established. Of course, it will have to be developed gradually, and in the early stages a subsidy of some £50,000 will be required. No doubt this amount ought to be contributed by the Colonies and territories in question, and I hope they will be assisted also by the Imperial Government. As the traffic develops, I believe there is no reason to suppose that the service will not ultimately become a remunerative one, but at all events we are very anxious to know what is being done at the present moment, and whether the Government ism contemplating bringing this most necessary air service into being. I beg to ask the Question which appears in my name, and to move for Papers.


My Lords, I am very glad indeed that the noble Lord has put down this Motion, for the project to which he refers—namely, that of an air service to link Egypt with East and Central Africa—is one which has recently been engaging the close attention of the Colonial Office and the Air Ministry. Such a service, quite apart from the benefits which it should confer on the territories immediately concerned by speeding up existing means of communication, will, it is hoped, be the first link in what should ultimately be one of the great trunk air routes of the Empire—namely, a route from Cairo to the Cape.

The present position as regards this service is as follows. An agreement was signed last November between the Governments of Kenya, Uganda, and the Sudan on the one hand, and a company styled the North Sea Aerial and General Transport, Limited, on the other, whereby the company, in return for specified contributions from these Governments, undertook to carry out within a period of twelve months from the date of the agreement an experimental survey of the route, consisting of twelve flights in each direction from Khartoum to Kisumu. These flights would, it was hoped, suffice to acquire the data and experience necessary for the subsequent organisation of a regular service on a permanent basis. Your Lordships will observe that the northern terminus proposed for this experimental service was Khartoum, not Cairo. This was necessitated by, financial limitations, but in order that some kind of through service to Cairo might be available at least for official passengers and mails and that experience might be acquired over the longer distance—for the greater the distance covered, the greater is the advantage enjoyed by air over other means of transport—arrangements were made for machines drawn from the Royal Air Force units stationed in Egypt to carry out a certain number of flights from Cairo to connect at Khartoum. The section from Khartoum to Kisumu was estimated to take three days, whilst an additional two-and-a-half days were allowed for the section Cairo to Khartoum, making five-and-a-half days in all.

Unfortunately, the opening of the service was attended by a run of ill-luck. Its commencement was delayed by an accident due to collision with some obstacle under water and, as, owing to limitations of finance and the experimental character of the service, no spare machine had been provided, a standard Air Force machine was lent to the company. With this machine five successful trips were made—three outward and two return—when a second mishap occurred and the service had to be suspended pending the reconstruction of the original machine. This is now far advanced and it is hoped to resume the service next month. It would be quite wrong to deduce from this chapter of accidents that the service is impracticable or that its operation is likely to be attended by serious difficulty. That two mishaps should have occurred in the space of a few weeks is merely an unfortunate coincidence and not in any way due to local conditions. No one was injured, and but for the fact that, for the reasons I have already given, replacement machines were not available, as would have been the case with a regular service organised on a permanent basis, such as those operating between London and Paris, the delays which have in fact ensued in recommencing operations would not have arisen.

As it is, the flights carried out can be regarded as having established that the service is technically feasible and that there is every prospect of its successful operation with reasonable regularity, though of course a longer period of experiment under varying conditions of weather is desirable. It may interest your Lordships to know that the first homeward mail carried left Kisumu on the 15th February and arrived in London on the 26th February—a period of eleven days as against the eighteen days required by the fastest homeward mail by sea from Mombasa, and that it comprised some 2,600 letters from Kenya and Uganda. The confidence of all those in close touch with the project is consequently, unshaken, and advantage was taken by the Colonial Office and Air Ministry of the presence in London for the recent Colonial Office Conference of representatives of the Governments interested, to discuss both the reopening of the experimental service at as early a date as practicable and the possibility of the organisation, in due course, of a permanent service to replace it. As in all new enterprises of this character, finance is necessarily the governing factor. The provision of the necessary ways and means is still under discussion, and I am not therefore in a position to make any definite statement on the future of the service. The noble Lord may at least rest assured that all concerned—the Colonial Office, the Air Ministry and the Governments of the territories affected—are convinced of the desirability of this service, are satisfied as to its technical practicability, and are working in close co-operation with a view to its realisation. I may add that, in pursuance of a suggestion made at the recent Colonial Office Conference and with a view to the further study of the possibilities of air transport in East Africa, arrangements are at the moment in train for the despatch of an Air Ministry expert to investigate the question on the spot in consultation with the local authorities concerned.


My Lords, I should like to express my satisfaction at the statement of the noble Duke. I am sure it is very encouraging to realise what are the intentions of the Government. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.