The Arrivals Unit at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi, after the fire
The JKIA Arrivals Unit, after the fire

Wednesday August 7th 2013. All was set for my trip to Nairobi, my suitcases were packed, and I had set the alarm before getting a good night’s sleep.

As always, I was looking forward to being in Nairobi, so my good mood dropped abruptly when I woke up to the message that the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport was on fire. It was all over the world news. Clearly, I was not going to Nairobi anytime soon.

A couple of phone calls later, it was confirmed that all flights in and out of Nairobi were off. Passengers already in the air towards the Kenyan capital, were being diverted to Eldoret and Mombasa.

JKIA Fire response unit
JKIA, Nairobi: So they actually have a fire brigade? Where were they on August 7th?

As details of the disaster gradually emerged, it became clear that what had started as a small fire at the Simba Lounge at 04:00, had gone on for 3 hours before growing out of control. Neither the staff, nor the fire brigade brigade had been able to put it out properly, and no-one had bothered, because it was just a small fire! Arrivals and departures had gone on as normal, until the fire had unfolded into an inferno engulfing the entire Immigration and Arrivals unit. The JKIA fire brigade could then only stand by and watch, due to the utter inadequacy of their equipment, and to the fact that the water hydrants were almost empty.

Later in the day, Kenya Airways confirmed that they would fly Lagos-Nairobi the next morning. Domestic flights in Kenya had already resumed, and in the evening, a limited number of international flights were back up in the air, too. I already started dreading the state of utter chaos that JKIA was likely to be in, though.

The next morning was Eid-ul-Fitr, the Muslim celebration at the end of Ramadan, and a public holiday in Nigeria. For the first time that I have seen, the entire road from Victoria Island to the airport was not just jam-free, but almost completely clear.

The airport was equally quiet and under-crowded, but when I got to the Kenya Airways counter, something seemed wrong. That place was just too quiet. I started fearing the worst.

“I don’t if you’ve heard, but there was a fire at the..”.

“Yes, I know”, I interrupted him. “I was supposed to travel yesterday, and I was told the flight would be on today.”

“Cancelled again. We sent out e-mails to all the passengers yesterday. Didn’t you get it”.

Since I was there, at the airport, the answer was rather obvious.

At the Kenya Airways office, a few other passengers had already started gathering, while more kept arriving. Starting to fear that it was going to take a really long time before any flight between Lagos and Nairobi would be up in the air, I asked if they could get me to another airport in Kenya with another airline.

“We’ve not been given the authority to book passengers on to other airlines, sir”.

“Then call Nairobi and get the authorization!”.

The person I was talking to brought his manager from the office next door, and after a brief discussion, someone was checking the alternatives with Rwandair and Ethiopian.

While Ethiopian had flights to Addis Ababa, all the connecting flights to Mombasa were fully booked. Rwandair didn’t have a flight from Kigali to Mombasa until Sunday. My long weekend, occasioned by Eid, seemed destined for the dustbin.

The only thing that was certain, was that chances of getting a flight to anywhere in Kenya that day, were nil.

Later in the evening, Kenya Airways called to tell me that the flight would be on the next morning, and that I should be at the airport at 9:00. “Please, let it be true this time!”, I thought.

When I arrived there, the queue for the ordinary check-ins was already massive. Some times, it is just incredibly sweet to have one of those frequent flyer Gold cards that allow you to jump in front!

At around 10:30, the KQ country manager came to apologize for the delays, informing everybody that aircraft had started boarding – in Nairobi!!

No confirmation of when it would take off, though. Another 5+ hours of waiting, in other words!

Of course, they wouldn’t let people check in until the aircraft was in the air, because the moment the passports would have been stamped by the Immigration dept, there would be no way back for passengers in the event of another flight cancellation. Hence, we were still standing in front of the check-in counter until further notice. The relative comfort of the lounge on the other side was near, yet so far.

Some time around 11:30, the check-in finally opened. As one of the first passengers to be served, I secured a seat completely in front, as getting off a fully booked aircraft on arrival can be a hassle and a half.

The new Air France lounge at the Lagos airport is quite comfortable indeed. The food selection is relatively limited, but the Moet Chandon that they serve with their pains au chocolat can compensate for that anytime! 😉

Knowing Kenya Airways, I never board until my name is called, or the lounge staff reminds me that I am the last passenger. Even the ordinary final call means “please come and queue for 10-15 minutes”. After some rather uneventful hours at the lounge, I finally emptied my last glass of champagne at around 17:30, and headed for the flight.

Makeshift Immingration tent at JKIA
Makeshift Immingration tent at JKIA

Surprisingly, arriving in Nairobi was a breeze. The airport was crowded with more aircrafts than I had ever seen there before. Obviously, they were working like crazy to clear the heavy backlog of passengers.

Almost equally numerous were the large tents surrounding the terminal building. Obviously, President Kenyatta’s government had moved quickly to restore “normal” operations.

What really surprised me, was the speed with which things moved at the makeshift immigration desks. Within 5 minutes, I was through, and had already collected my luggage from the Domestic Arrivals unit, through which passengers were being routed.  In fact, I can’t recall having gone through the arrival procedures at JKIA that fast ever before!

After the ridiculously incompetent initial response by Kenya Airports Authority, and the shocking lack of disaster preparedness, at least President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government seems to have delivered an adequate crisis management.

JKIA Unit 4 to be fasttracked
JKIA Unit 4 to be fasttracked

In the aftermath of the fire, the Preisdent has already announced that work in progress on the upcoming Unit 4, as well as the upgrading of the three old units will be accelerated. The VIP Pavillion, previously used for visiting heads of state, has also been converted into a terminal, while a temporary terminal building with a capacity of 2.5 million passengers will be built as an emergency measure.

The construction of JKIA Terminal 2 (also referred to as the “Greenfield terminal” by the media), with a 20 million passenger capacity, is also due to commence in November.

What seems clear, though, is that the current management of JKIA and of the Kenya Airports Authority should be sacked forthwith. JKIA’s position as one the major aviation hubs in Africa, can only be maintained in the long run if the airport is seen to be competently and reliably managed. Currently, that is not the case.

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