JKIA – secrets of a frequent traveler

Seven points to remember when traveling via JKIA

Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in Nairobi is undoubtedly one of the most modern and efficient airports in Sub-Saharan Africa. Recently expanded with the new Terminal 1A, the old parts of Terminal 1 are gradually being renovated too, while a temporary Terminal 2 has boosted the already-stretched capacity of the airport further. The new Terminal 3, expected to open in 2017 with a capacity to handle 20 million passengers a year, is likely to cement JKIA’s position as a main continental hub for decades.

JKIA is far from perfect, though, and despite being better than most other airports in Africa, not without hiccups. For frequent flyers like me, all those little flaws become all too apparent over time. Based on my own observations from passing through JKIA a few hundred times over the past couple of years, these are some key points other travelers might want to keep in mind:

1. Manual body search, for no reason!

Before entering the airport area, all vehicles pass through a screening yard that includes a 16-lane mobile vehicle x-ray scanner – the only one of its kind in Africa. The government spent a hitherto undisclosed amount on this to provide improved, flawless primary security checks at JKIA. Unfortunately, that flawlessness has been scuttled by some old relics at the top of the police force. These guys don’t seem to trust modern technology, and therefore insist that passengers alight from the cars to queue for a manual search. Police officers enforcing this nonsense are visibly embarrassed once you bring up the subject, hence my routine when entering JKIA has become as follows:
– Officer: Please get out of the car.
– Me: Why?
– Officer: You need to go for a search over there.
– Me: Why?
– Officer: It’s for your own security.
– Me: We are driving through a vehicle scanner, no? Why do I need to go for a manual search?
– Officer: The scanner is not working.
– Me: It was opened four months ago. You mean it’s just there for decoration?
– Officer (at this point getting uneasy): Well, you see, we are still supposed to search passengers. You know, routines, er..
– Me: Are you telling me that the Government of Kenya has spent all this tax money on a fancy-looking structure that  is there for appearances only, and that you guys are still doing exactly the same job as before?
– Officer (moving on to the next vehicle): It’s ok. Drive on!

2. The people operating the security scanners have no idea what you send through.

At the airport terminal building, there is first a luggage scanner at the entrance, then a second one after the passport control before entering the Departures zone. These scanners are decorated with signs kindly asking passengers to take laptops, cameras, etc out of their bags, and place them in separate trays. Sometimes, there is even a person whose only task seems to consist of asking “laptop? laptop?” every time someone places anything on the belt.  Fair enough, if it mattered.

The truth is that all this is for the sake of appearances only, because the moment your bag, suitcase or whatever enters the scanner, nobody cares about it any more. You can have a laptop there, a bottle of whisky, a huge metal case that the scanner can’t see through (and that could obviously contain anything): Anything goes, and no-one cares, let alone reacts.

3. “Boarding” = “relax, have another drink!”

When you hear an announcement that passengers for a particular flight are requested to proceed to the gate, that does not mean that the flight about to board, or even that the aircraft is at the airport. They just want as many passengers as possible to queue at the gate long in advance to make their job easier when boarding eventually commences. Kenya Airways are notorious for this, but since they operate the gates for many of the other airlines, this applies almost across the board. Because JKIA is way beyond its passenger capacity, it is not unusual for two or three flights to share the same gate. Hence, most gates are almost constantly in use, and it is obviously more convenient for the crew to have the passengers gathered in one place in advance.  Once you present your ticket at the gate, you enter the boarding area where they won’t let you out. You are now caged in, and all you can do is to sit there.

Once the gate opens for what they refer to as “boarding”, usually  one hour before departure, they start making frequent announcements, making even the more sanguine passengers finish what they are doing, and rush to the gate. Alas, the flight is still not boarding. Again, they just want to make sure you don’t go anywhere.

The next step is the “final boarding announcement”. If you are traveling with any airline other than Kenya Airways, you may want to start walking towards the gate now. With KQ, it means that they have captured roughly half of the passengers at the gate, and that they are impatient to get the rest. Note that the aircraft may still be in the air on the way back from its previous destination. The screens will refer to the flight as “boarding”, though. Some times, they may even change the status to “gate closing”, to get the last diehards to come and wait at the gate.

Until 30 minutes to departure, you have nothing to fear, though. Kenya Airways will never close the gates on any passenger until after the 30-minute deadline. Most other airlines at JKIA follow the same practise, so as long as you keep this in mind, you are safe. Also, KQ will always call your name twice, and give you about 10 minutes from the first time. If you are in the Kenya Airways lounge, you can also ask the crew at the reception to call the gate to get the status (they don’t make boarding announcements in the lounge, though).

4. Whether you’re the first person off the plane no longer matters. Where you sit/stand in the bus does.

Before the 2013 airport fire, being the first person off the plane could potentially save you an hour, as passengers would alight directly into the terminal building, and proceed to Immigration. Getting off first then meant getting in front of the queue (assuming there were no major arrivals just before your flight). Today, all passengers are transported to the “temporary” arrivals unit in buses. The trick now is to sit or stand by the left hand front door, as that one will always be right in front of the entrance when the bus stops. As you will quickly realise, the difference between having 0 and 10 people in front if you in the immigration queue can be significant.

5. Taxes on intentions

Every country has its share of dumb laws. Some examples of that can be found here. Kenya has at least one that should be on that list, namely their tax on intentions:

If you get stopped in Customs, expect them to ask if you are bringing gifts for anyone. If you answer yes, then brace yourself for a detour to a nearby teller, as any goods that you would normally have brought in for free, are suddenly taxable. Don’t be surprised if for any reason you will have to leave your items behind and return to the airport the next day to pay those taxes. You can obviously expect to spend some time in the process. This is for your information only, though. I would never advocate lying to a Customs Officer about your personal intentions behind items in your luggage, let alone attempting to evade taxes on those intentions.

6. “Yes, Taxi!”

The moment you are through Customs, you will inevitably be approached by taxi drivers aggressively soliciting passengers. Do not under any circumstance believe anything they say! They are capable of claiming your driver didn’t show up (like they would know in the first place), or that the hotel that you had booked is closed for whatever reason. Then they will offer to take you somewhere (most likely in a ramshackle car) where they can earn a commission. The best way to deal with them is to ignore them, pretend they don’t exist, and walk straight past them. If you need a taxi, go to Kenatco at the end of the arrivals hall.

7. By all means, avoid the parking lots!

Assuming you got someone to pick you up from the airport, keep in mind that getting out of the parking can be time consuming . Ensure by all means that the driver does not enter one of the parking lots, or you will find yourself waiting for a long time while he’s queuing to get out.

Bon voyage! 🙂


  1. Amund Breda October 27, 2016 at 10:15 am

    Good read!

  2. Johnny B. March 17, 2017 at 3:21 pm

    Thanks for posting. Haven’t been to JKIA in a while and interesting to see how it’s changed. Cheers.

    1. Håvar Bauck March 28, 2017 at 5:43 pm

      It has changed beyond recognition. Unfortunately, it is growing at a rate where it will soon be at full capacity again, with no further imminent expansions.


Leave a Reply