Friday, August 16, 2013



By Jerry Okungu
Nairobi, Kenya
August 14, 2013

For decades, Nairobi has gained the reputation as the business hub of East Africa. For years we have taken it for granted that whatever happens in Nairobi and Kenya for that matter is likely to be felt in the entire region. The reality is Nairobi is more than a hub to the people of East Africa. It is indeed the heart beat of the region that pumps blood into the commercial life of Eastern Africa. Anything that makes this heart skip a beat has serious consequences for the normal life of the region.

Compared to London, New York, Amsterdam or even Paris, Nairobi international airport is a dwarf among international air travel giants. However, back home here in Africa, the amount of traffic and air travel connectivity can only compare with South Africa’s Oliver Tambo International Airport.

In our region, Nairobi International Airport serves airlines from Entebbe, Kigali, Bujumbura, Dar es Salaam, Kilimanjaro Airport, Addis Ababa, Mogadishu, Khartoum, Juba and Kinshasa among others. JKIA is the regional operators’ stepping stone to the rest of the world. It was the reason when rebel soldiers closed the airport in 1982; the repercussions were felt far and wide. It was the same reason when some hooligans uprooted a few railway lines in Kibera in 2008 at the height of the conflict in Kenya; the repercussions were felt as far as Kampala, Kigali and Kinshasa not to mention northern Tanzania.

Let us look at the consequences of the fire that gutted the arrival terminal of JKIA.
A minor fire that started somewhere between Immigration Department at the Arrival Terminal went out of control. In a matter of minutes the small fire turned into a blaze that forced the authorities at Kenya Airports Authority to shut down the entire airport. In a matter of minutes no planes were allowed to land or take off. Incoming flights were diverted to Mombasa, Entebbe, Dar es Salaam and Kilimanjaro airports. It was a chaotic scene not just in Nairobi but in all the other airports to which the flights were diverted.

This latest fire disaster at JKIA reminded me of an incident in which I was involved way back in 1987.

It was one of those mornings that I took a local flight from Nairobi to Kisumu. At that time the only airline that operated from Nairobi to Kisumu was a Kenya Airways Fokker27.

As we approached the Kisumu Airport flying over Lake Victoria, we realized that the plane was not descending. We flew over the tiny airport twice when the pilot announced that the wheels had jammed making it difficult for him to land in Kisumu. He informed us that our only choice was to fly back to Nairobi however; he faced another problem- he was running out of fuel!

His reason for flying back to JKIA was because Kisumu had no Emergency Landing facilities like fire fighters, doctors, nurses, medical equipment and ambulances.

Half way through our flight to JKIA, the pilot chose to prepare us for emergency landing explaining that when the plane crash lands, it nose dives making it impossible for front seat passengers to survive. We were therefore ordered to vacate our front seats and stand at the back for those who had no seats.
To say that we were a frightened lot is an understatement. I drank all the whiskies I could lay my hands on because I knew that this was it. We were either going crash in mountains of Rift Valley due to fuel shortage or if we made it to JKIA, the hard concrete on the runway was waiting for us.

When we got to JKIA, the first thing I saw was a sea of ambulances, white coated medical personnel, countless fire fighting trucks with  fire men at the ready. Yes, there was maximum emergency preparedness for a Fokker 27. But again, that level of seriousness also told us that we were in real danger of dying that morning.

Our good pilot tried to land twice and twice he failed. I think he was praying for a miracle to happen so that he could unlock the wheels. On the third attempt, his prayers were answered and the wheels unlocked! We clapped, cheered and cried with joy at the same time.

If 26 years ago, there was that level of preparedness at JKIA what has happened to the JKIA management nearly three decades later? If we could have competent emergency services those many years ago, what has happened in between? How could a small fire which could have been put out by a handheld fire extinguisher be allowed to consume the entire arrival terminal, Immigration and Customs Departments? What happened to regular Emergency Drills were used to in years gone by?

If Kenya Airways alone lost US $ 4 million in those three days of chaos, how many losses were incurred by airlines from Entebbe, Kilimanjaro, Dar es Salaam, Kigali, Addis Ababa, Amsterdam and London that had to deal with stranded passengers in their airports?

What of business premises that and hoteliers operated their outfits at the arrival terminal? Who will compensate them for their losses? What if their insurers decline their claims on suspicion that it was arson?
The heartbeat of East Africa needs better than this!