Sunday, September 14, 2008



September 14, 2008
By Lillian Aluanga
Sunday Standard

Today, the glitzy restaurant at JKIA where travellers once dined as they watched planes take to the skies is no more. The once lively waving bay remains closed to the public.

In the early 1990s, a young man from Nairobi’s Eastlands area gained admission to a university in the United States of America.

After months of preparation, he set off for the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA), accompanied by a bunch of chattering friends.

Among the group was Eugiene Masbayi, an employee with the City Council of Nairobi, who recalls their arrival at the airport.

"Some people wheeled the trolley alongside our friend as he queued at the check-in counter. Others hang around the hall, just chatting and waiting.

Airport security is a major concern since the attacks on the US on September 11, 2001

To while away time, Masbayi wandered around the duty free shops, before the group escorted their teary-eyed friend into the passenger lounge. They then headed to the waving bay, where a sea of scarves, caps and handkerchiefs fluttered in the wind, buoyed by a belief by those waving them that their loved ones could spot them from the plane.

Today, more than 10 years later, things are markedly different at the JKIA.

It began with the 1998 bombing of the American embassy in Nairobi where nearly 230 people were killed, and later the terror attacks on US soil in September 2001, where thousands lost their lives.End of carnival

It was then that the airport, as Masbayi knew it, began to change, taking away the aura of adventure that enthralled first- time visitors.

It was the era that marked the end of a carnival atmosphere at departure terminals, when relatives arrived in droves aboard minibuses adorned with flowers and banana leaves. Some even arrived with last minute gifts – bales of maize flour – which would quickly be checked in without much ado.

Today, the glitzy restaurant where travellers once dined as they watched planes take to the skies is no more. The once lively waving bay remains closed to the public, save for the occasional visit by students on educational tours.

At departure terminals, where family and friends once roved freely, now stand rails and security officers literally measuring the radius accessible to non-travellers.

Then come the security checks where the bleep of a metal detector would instantly see belts, shoes, watches, earrings, and even wedding bands skimmed off owners for scrutiny. In some instances, cameras are taken away for scrutiny, a marked difference from days when the flashy gadgets hanging around passengers’ necks would simply be waved on by security. There was a time when unattended luggage was put down to an ‘absent minded’ traveller. But today, such bags would immediately draw the attention of security officers and bomb experts.

"The situation was different in the 1980s and early 1990s. It was normal to walk up to the check-in counter with the person you were escorting and even take pictures," Masbayi says.

But 9/11 changed everything.

"These days, once someone goes past the checkpoint at the entrance, that’s probably the last you will see of them," he adds.

A taxi driver who has been operating at JKIA since the late 1970s says major shifts in operations at the airport came after the 2001 terror attacks in the US.Hiring taxi

The Kenatco taxi employee recalls days when hiring a taxi from the airport to the city centre cost Sh198. It now costs about Sh1,400 – almost seven times more. Those were the days when clients could settle their bills with the cab drivers at check-in counters.

"Nowadays you can’t let clients get into the building before settling the bill because you may never see them again," he says.

At the arrival bays, things got even better, with the taxi operators mingling with potential customers as they cleared with Customs.

Midway through the conversation, the taxi driver excuses himself as one of the company’s employees ushers a client to his taxi.

"This is how it’s done nowadays," he says as he loads the client’s luggage into the boot.

On the opposite side of the arrivals bay, a group of friends and relatives alight from a minibus and converge at the car park outside a departure terminal. Three people from the group lug their kin’s suitcases and plop them onto trolleys.

But the farthest the joyous caravan can go are the rails outside the terminal, where a security officer stands guard. Taken aback by the restrictions, the group heads back to the parking lot with their kin for a quick photo session and final hugs.

"Security became even tighter after the bombings on London’s public transport system in 2005 as airports struggled to keep up with international safety standards," says an airline official who has worked at JKIA since 2001.

Items previously considered harmless — creams, lotions, perfume and a host of other cosmetics — can no longer make it on board if they exceed 100ml.

But even when they meet this requirement, the items must be put inside a transparent bag provided by the airline. Manicure kits are also banned on board.Little choice

Today, passengers have little choice but to remain glued to the entertainment provided while on transit.

It is tougher for those who would love to have a glass of their favourite wine to calm their nerves.

"There was a time when passengers were allowed to open drinks they had bought at duty free shops and have them on board," says the airline employee.

But not anymore.

"The drinks must be sealed in special bags and can only be opened upon arrival at one’s destination," he says.

For the taxi operator, life for the traveller can only get tougher.

"There will come a time when taxis will be pushed further away from the kerb because of security," he says.

"It’s because of these people called terrorists. They have changed the world forever," he adds.